Collections: The Status Quo Coalition

This week we’re going to take a look at an aspect of contemporary international relations, rather than ancient ones. As has become somewhat customary, I am going to use the the week of July 4th to talk about the United States, or more correctly for this July 4th, the informal coalition (with formal components) of countries the United States inhabits and leads.

In some ways this is following up on a thread left hanging a couple of years ago when I commented briefly that I didn’t think the term ’empire’ effectively described the US position in the international order. And so this post will focus on what I do think is the US position in the international order, although the focus here is going to be somewhat less on the United States’ role within what I am going to call the ‘status quo coalition’ than it is on the coalition itself. Because the existence and breadth of this coalition is really unusual and thus remarkable; indeed it may be indicative of broader shifts in how interstate relationships work in an industrial/post-industrial world where institutions and cultural attitudes are beginning, slowly, to catch up to the new realities our technology has created.

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But first, before we get into the coalition itself, I think it is a good idea to jump back to some of our international relations theory (particularly some neo-realism) to think about how countries ought, in theory to be behaving, based on how they have in the past normally behaved under conditions like those today. Mostly, of course, this is to point out that a rather chunky groups of countries are not behaving this way, which is the striking fact this essay is attempting to explain.

We’ve talked about the most common condition states find themselves in, interstate anarchy, before. In brief interstate anarchy is a condition in which there are many states operating in a state system which has few or no constraints on the use of violence. Because larger states can use the greater resources of their large size to impose their interests on smaller states, these conditions create a dog-eat-dog race in militarism where the only way for states to avoid becoming prey is to become the most effective predators. Such systems can be durable, if not stable, because everyone is doing this, creating a ‘Red Queen effect,’ where because all of the states are trying desperately to maximize security by maximizing military power, no one actually gets ahead.

But sometimes one or more powers do get ahead and begin to dominate the system. If it several larger powers doing this what we tend to see emerge are ‘balance of power’ systems. These too can be durable and even potentially stable (for a time), because of a key behavior that emerges among both the larger ‘Great Powers’ and smaller states: balancing. This behavior will be immediately familiar to players of strategy games, but we see it emerge in actual state systems too. The logic is fairly simple: weaker powers benefit from the relative independence that continued competition in the system gives them. Consequently, small powers want to avoid anyone ‘winning’ the game, since a singular winning power would be able to dominate and possibly absorb them.

The result of this behavior is the emergence of a ‘balance of power,’ facilitated by the fact that the powers in the system tend to align against whichever powers appear strongest, in order to check their advance. European politics from 1500 to 1945 followed this pattern, with shifting coalitions forming to contain any power or alliance that seemed on course to achieve a ‘breakout’ from the competitive system. Thus the anti-Habsburg coalitions of the 1500s and early 1600s, or the anti-France coalitions of the early 1700s, followed by balancing against Britain in the late 1700s and then balancing against France again in the aftermath of the French revolution, before the unification of Germany led to balancing against that power. The same behavior is visible in antiquity in both the Greek conflicts of 431-338 (balancing first against Athens, then Sparta, then Thebes and finally a failed effort to balance against Macedon) and the behavior of the Hellenistic successor states (and the Greek poleis) after Alexander’s death in 323 until Rome achieves breakout in the second century.

Balancing doesn’t always work of course: sometimes a large imperial power is able, by luck or superior resources, to achieve victory anyway, usually by winning a ‘war of containment’ – a war where a large balancing coalition attempts to cut a rising power back down to size. Rome successfully overcomes two (arguably three) of these on its way to achieving what we might term ‘hegemonic breakout.’ First in the Third Samnite War (298-290), the Romans faced down a grand coalition of Samnites, Etruscans and Gauls – essentially every non-Greek power not already part of Rome’s growing Italian empire.1 The Greek powers then try their luck inviting Pyrrhus in a similar balancing coalition, but also loses. The consequence of those wars was undisputed Roman hegemony in Italy: balancing had been tried and failed.

When balancing fails, the resulting system is hegemony. Once balancing fails, everyone’s interests suddenly recalculate in a diametrically opposed way. So long as balancing was possible, it was in most state’s interests to oppose the leading power in an effort to contain it; the moment balancing becomes impossible, it is suddenly in every state’s interest to support the leading power and align with it in the hopes of persisting as a client state and maintaining at least some degree of autonomy.

Of course the converse of this is that if the hegemon should stumble in some way, everyone’s interests all shift back to balance of power just as quickly. This is why some empires, especially very decentralized ones with lots of ‘vassal’ states, can decline for ages before failing very rapidly all at once. The collapse of the (Neo)Assyrian Empire in last three decades of the seventh century BC is a good example of this: one it becomes clear that central imperial power is weak, both subject peoples (Egypt, Babylon) and tributary neighbors (Medea, Persia) all turn on the former hegemon more or less all at once, leading to rapid disintegration.

These patterns of state behavior are quite well established and one could pile example after example of these general trends. They are, of course, not laws; states act in ways that deviate from their neo-realist ‘interests’ all the time. The people leading them make blunders, and miscalculations, stand on principle or make decisions for ideological reasons often enough. But in general when describing the pattern of decisions of a large number of states over a reasonably long period of time (say, three decades or so), the pattern holds pretty well.

Except right now.

The Failure of Balancing

Immediately after the end of the Cold War, we got the rough result we might expect: the rapid expansion of US influence as the United States – the sole remaining superpower after the collapse of the USSR – became a global hegemon and was thus in a position to rewrite the rules of international relations to suit itself. The End of History and all that. Many countries more consciously aligned with the United States and few more were made into high profile examples of what might happen to countries that failed to align with the new hegemon, being either ‘regime changed’ or isolated from the global economy. That part wasn’t the surprise.

What was surprising is that in the years that followed, a number of potential counter-weights to the United States did, in fact, emerge during what we may term the End of the End of History and yet balancing didn’t meaningfully reassert itself. One the one hand, two major revisionist powers emerged (Russia and China), with one of them clearly having the economic heft to potentially act as a peer-rival to the United States, to shield potential allies from the full brunt of American economic might and the nuclear umbrella to prohibit direct US military intervention in areas of high concern. Meanwhile a third possible power, the EU, emerged as ‘the dog that didn’t bark.’ A confederation of European states with enough economic power and population to immediately form a peer-competitor or at least containing coalition against US influence which simply opted not to.

Under the balancing model, we ought to expect a fairly wide range of countries to begin aligning with the potential competitors to the United States in order to limit American influence and constrain what the United States can do. A more multipolar world, they might well think, should offer great latitude for those countries to pursue their own interests.

Instead, global opinion looks like this:

Charts from this Pew Research Center report.

That data, from a June, 2023 study of global perceptions of the United States is pretty remarkable. Of course polling this this varies by the political moment and the administration in power in the United States and so the figures might not have been quite so favorable to the United States back in, say, 2018. Indeed, they were less favorable, but still net favorable, back in 2018 during the Trump presidency (which, regardless of your politics in the USA, was as a matter of data, less well regarded abroad) and before the War in Ukraine. But as interesting as the fact that the United States is viewed favorably in these countries – which to be fair is not all countries, but is a solid cross-cut of countries that are now or are likely to become major global power centers (sans Russia and China, in which it is impossible to do such polling) – is the odd cross-implications of the results.

To oversimplify the results a touch, we might say that the average respondent thinks that the United States is a meddlesome busy-body that only occasionally considers the needs of other countries…and that the United States is thus a force for good and peace and they like it very much, thank you. That is to say, respondents overwhelmingly thought the USA ‘interferes in the affairs of other countries’ and responses were profoundly ambivalent as to if the United States even tries to consider the interests of other countries, but despite that almost two-third of respondents concluded that the USA contributes to peace and stability and consequently had a positive view of it.

And that’s not just some polling data: globally we can see the failure of balancing. Despite the fact that the first real challenger to the US-led world order since 1989 has emerged in the form of the People’s Republic of China, the PRC has the same meager list of allies in 2023 that it had in 1953: North Korea. Russia likewise has a single European client state (Belarus); Russian friendship with Hungary has merely bought neutrality, not aid. The idea that BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) would constitute some developing-world coalition hasn’t really materialized either. While the rest of the BRICS won’t, for economic reasons, join the anti-Russian sanction regime, they also aren’t sanction-busting to any significant degree; even China’s support for Russia has been remarkably tepid. These are precisely the countries that ought to be eager to balance against the United States in order to open space to push their own interests.

Meanwhile, the United States’ list of allies is preposterous. Of the top 10 countries by nominal GDP – a decent enough measure of potential military capabilities – one is the United States and six more2 are close allies of the United States. Of the next ten, five more3 are formal US treaty allies, one is pointedly neutral4 and three more5 have either extensive economic ties with the United States, significant military ties with the United States or both.

Meanwhile the list of formal treat allies of the United States is expanding with the addition of Sweden and Finland to NATO.6 Likewise the formal American infrastructure in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ seems to be deepening, rather than declining, with a range of countries expressing at least some interest in joining AUKUS or at least an AUKUS-like deal with the United States in the region. France – which was more than a little wounded by the AUKUS pact, which unilaterally canceled a deal they had with Australia with basically no notice – nevertheless remained in NATO and remains a major component of the NATO-led support of Ukraine. This was, I should note, no sure thing – France pulled out of NATO’s main command structure (while remaining in the alliance) and only rejoined in 2009. Again, in a period where we might expect balancing against the United States, France has pulled closer, not further away, from Uncle Sam.

At the same time, it is not the case that all countries or even most countries are aligning with the United States. One of the very striking indicators of this is the lack of appetite in much of the world for sanctions against Russia. Most countries are both unwilling to sanction Russia and unwilling to sanction-bust in favor of Russia. A huge portion of the world, including nearly all of the ‘Global South’ (a term I dislike, but it will do here) are functioning non-aligned. But that very non-alignment is useful for the United States: if there is a large pro-USA coalition, a large non-aligned non-coalition and then isolated revisionist powers, that is a system where the American geopolitical vision remains the predominant one.

Via Wikipedia, a map of countries on Russia’s ‘Unfriendly Countries List’ which is a good barometer of countries actively imposing sanctions against Russia. That said, because of the way sanctions work, countries that don’t impose such sanctions may still have to abide by them in order to retain access to capital markets, so even countries like India and China which haven’t joined the sanction regime are still impacted by it.

And I don’t think the non-aligned states are sleepwalking here: I think they know this and in many cases broadly prefer this outcome. You can see that preference reflected in the views of countries like Indonesia, India, Kenya and Nigeria in the chart above. They won’t back the United States if that incurs meaningful costs – these are developing countries that cannot afford grandiosity, after all – but they also won’t oppose the United States without a pretty substantial incentive. China’s efforts to ‘buy allies’ through the Belt and Road Initiative appear to have spent a lot of money buying roughly zero allies, globally. A whole lot of these countries – as you can see in the Pew polling data of some of the largest above – seem pretty content to let ‘Uncle Sam and Pals’ run the show, while they focus on economic and political development at home.

Balancing appears to have failed, without really even being tried. A handful of countries have tried to exploit what I think we can identify as balancing strategies. Israel retains studiously open channels with all of the major powers, while both Turkey and Indonesia have at least sounded out the idea of replacing US or NATO equipment in their militaries with Russian equipment. But where we might expect to see the emergence of a real anti-US-hegemony coalition, there is remarkably little appetite at present. Hungary is more pro-Russia than the rest of Europe, but not pro-Russia enough to send Russia tanks the way the rest of Europe sends Ukraine tanks. Viktor Orbán is, at most, only performatively pro-Russian, whereas the rest of NATO is actively pro-Ukraine in a way that bolsters American security policy. Instead, the ‘revisionist’ states, both large (Russia, China) and small (Iran, North Korea) largely stand both apart from each other and lack any kind of broader coalition that might reach other wealthy, industrialized countries with the will to actually make a challenge to the US-produced international system feasible.

For a revisionist power, this is a real challenge. Being isolated is no fun and successful efforts to overturn a leading power generally require either lots of alliances, diplomatically isolated the leading power, or both. So long as the United States sits ensconced in an alliance-system with dozens of the richest countries on Earth, the US-led international system is very difficult to revise. Just ask Russia how hard it is to move some borders in Europe.

And yet again, this is strange, because the countries arrayed, en masse around the United States ought to be some of the very countries – strong regional powers with big economies – that might benefit most from having the freedom to ‘revise’ the international order to suit themselves. And yet they don’t.


Ode to the Status Quo

I think the answer here is actually simple: the incentives for these countries have changed and now enough time has passed that they’ve realized it. The difference between Russia and France is, to be blunt, that the French know something the Russians haven’t learned yet (but are apparently in the process of learning right now). But let’s back up for a moment.

One of the very basic facts about IR theory is that, by necessity, it is developed using exemplars from the past. In particular, that means using mostly the pre-industrial or early-industrial past, if only because all examples we draw on must come before the present and we’ve only had lots of industrial societies interacting with each other for about a century and a half. We have centuries of balance-of-power politics in agrarian Europe, but far fewer years spent watching how post-industrial societies behave. And indeed, because social development is a process, we may not even yet be able to observe how mature post-industrial societies behave, because our institutions and mores may only slowly be developing into a stable shape. It took millennia from the development of farming to the emergence of the kind of large, extraction-based polities which became the standard large-scale organization of farmers. It is not at all clear that the societies we have now are stable, mature ‘post-industrial’ societies so much as some larval stage of transition to more stable forms.

But in any event, much of this theory was based on agrarian states or early industrial states. And one of the features of agrarian interstate relations was that returns to war outpaced returns to capital, which is a fancy way of saying you could get richer, faster by conquest than by development. Under those sorts of conditions, most powers were going to be, in some form, ‘revisionist’ powers because most powers would have something to gain by attacking a weaker neighbor and seizing their resources (mostly arable land and peasant farmers to be taxed). Indeed that basic interaction creates much of the ‘churn’ of interstate anarchy: everyone has an incentive to prey on their neighbors, creating the dog-eat-dog brutality of interstate interactions. The only countries without such an interest would be countries that were very small and weak, seeking to avoid being absorbed themselves.

But, as we’ve discussed, industrialization changes all of this: the net returns to war are decreased (because industrial war is so destructive and lethal) while the returns to capital investment get much higher due to rising productivity. In the pre-industrial past, fighting a war to get productive land was many times more effective than investing in irrigation and capital improvements to your own land, assuming you won the war. But in the industrial world, fighting a war to get a factory is many, many less times more effective than just building a new factory at home, especially since the war is very likely to destroy the factory in the first place. This was not always the case! The great wealth of many countries and indeed industrialization itself was built on resources acquired through imperial expansion; now the cost of that acquisition is higher than simply buying the stuff. War is no longer a means to profit, but an emergency response to avoid otherwise certain extreme losses.

So whereas in the old system, almost every power except potentially the hegemon, had something to potentially gain by upending the stability of the system, the economics of modern production means that quite a lot of countries will have absolutely nothing to gain from a war, even a successful one. Now that dispassionate calculation has arguably been true for more than a century; the First World War was an massive exercise in proving that nothing that could be gained from a major power war would be worth the misery, slaughter and destruction of a major power war. Subsequent conflicts have reinforced this lesson again and again, yet conflicts continue to occur. Azar Gat argues in part that this is because humans are both evolved in our biology (and thus patterns of thinking and emotion) as well as our social institutions, for warfare and aggression. We have to unlearn those instincts and redesign those institutions and this process is slow and uneven.

But we have started to learn and that has begun to influence state calculations. But note that those calculations are going to be fairly directly related to the level of economic development in a state: the more economic development, the more strongly the interest calculation tilts against war and towards stability.

At the same time, states aren’t unitary actors. Every state as conflict within it – conflicting visions of how the state ought to be run and so on. Those conflicts can of course become violent and boil over into broader conflicts which might end up involving even states who might not wish to be at war. Alternately, catastrophic state failure can produce refugee flows and other humanitarian disasters which can be destabilizing and trigger conflicts or convince states who do not want a war that nevertheless war is the ‘least bad option.’

That said, not all countries seem, in the post-WWII world (admittedly not the largest sample) to equally produce these sorts of externalities. In particular, rich democracies with robust protections for human rights and civil liberties tend not to. This isn’t to say such countries don’t have internal problems, but that these problems tend to be contained; they don’t generate refugee flows or cross-border insurgencies. Part of this is presumably that these tend to be strong states which can mostly maintain order in the borders and partly it is that the democratic nature of these states channels most internal divisions into peaceful democratic processes, while the protections for a range of human rights and civil liberties reduce the costs of ‘losing’ any particular round of democratic decision-making, incentivizing peaceful ‘repeat players’ in the game.

Please note how limited this argument is. It does not require that liberal democracies7 function perfectly, it does not require that they resolve all of their internal problems equitably or reach the right policy solutions or even that their internal political systems are entirely peaceful. It merely requires the greatest extremes of internal conflicts to be funneled into the political process. Given how rare it is for consolidated democracies to deconsolidate (to the point that arguing that it has never actually happened remains a live argument in political science; much depends on how one defines ‘consolidated’) it seems fairly clear that liberal democratic systems largely work in limiting violence in the political process and preventing it from either overturning the state or spilling over into neighboring states.

But all of that alters the incentives! For the inhabitants of those states, the status quo is actually really good. These are, after all, countries that are both rich and free, a distinction that we’re going to keep coming back to in this discussion. Such countries cannot get any richer through war, or any more free. Violent revisions to the status quo are thus only going to be bad for them.

Moreover they share all sorts of other interests because being rich and free creates a lot of ‘coincidences of interest.’ Rich countries generally prefer the free flow of goods, because their highly productive economies benefit from trade; they generally prefer the free flow of ideas because both their political and economic systems benefit. They tend to prefer stability in other regions, because they are prime targets for destabilizing refugee flows. Consequently, they tend to prefer the emergence of other rich and free countries, because those tend to be good trade partners who don’t generate massive refugee flows. That said, we don’t have a good grasp on how to create new rich and free countries and attempts to do so often fail.8

And the good news for these rich and free countries is that the current international system was largely the creation of one really big rich and free country (the United States) working together with a bunch of other rich and free countries, setting the rules the way rich and free countries like them. So the international system, embedded in organizations like the IMF, WTO, the World Bank and to a degree the United Nations, is institutionally structured to prefer the free movement of goods, ideas and capital and to discourage the revision of the status quo by force.

Rather than being simply an expression of American power (though they are that), those institutions are also an expression of the collective interests of this informal collection of rich and free countries, what we might call the status quo coalition.

The Status Quo Coalition

I think this idea of a status quo coalition which is both a key part of the structure of the United States’ geopolitical position but not exactly coextensive with it is important to understand. In the past I’ve struggled with how to describe the United States’ rather odd – and indeed, large to an unprecedented degree – global system of alliances and friendships. But I think the status quo coalition serves as the bedrock foundation on which that system is built. Not every United States partner or ally is a member of the status quo coalition, but I’d argue that nearly every rich and free country is a member and that nearly every member of the coalition is in turn, a US partner or ally. Indeed, the number of rich and free countries is small enough that we can simply list them, taking every country with a GDP per capita above $40,000 (PPP adjusted) and a Freedom House global freedom score above 70 (‘free’). I’ve also listed ‘memberships,’ mostly for the security arrangements these countries tend to have with each other; note that ‘BILAT’ indicates a bilateral security treaty with a member, usually (but not always) the USA; FVEY stands for ‘Five Eyes’ and AUKUS for, well, AUKUS.

CountryGDP per capita ($PPP)Freedom House ScoreMembershipsCoalition Member?
Luxembourg142,49097EU NATOYes
Switzerland87,96396Swiss NeutralityNo
Norway82,655100NATO EEAYes
United States80,03583NATO FVEY AUKUSTeam Captain
San Marino78,92697BILAT (Italy)Micro-Nation
Denmark73,38697EU NATOYes
Taiwan73,34494BILAT (USA)Yes
Netherlands72,97397EU NATOYes
Iceland69,77994NATO EEAYes
Austria69,50293EU Official Neutrality (Yes?)
Andorra68,99893BILAT (France, Spain)Micro-Nation
Germany66,13294EU NATOYes
Sweden65,842100EU (NATO)Yes
Belgium65,50196EU NATOYes
Australia65,36695FVEY AUKUSYes
Finland60,897100EU NATOYes
Canada60,17798NATO FVEYYes
France58,82889EU NATOOui
South Korea56,70683BILAT (USA)Yes
Italy54,21690EU NATOYes
New Zealand54,04699FVEY BILAT (USA, UK, AUS)Yes
Slovenia52,64195EU NATOYes
Japan51,80996BILAT (USA)Yes
Czechia50,96192EU NATOYes
Spain49,44890EU NATOYes
Lithuania49,26689EU NATOYes
Estonia46,38594EU NATOYes
Poland45,34381EU NATOYes
Portugal44,70796EU NATOYes
Bahamas43,91391BILAT (USA, UK)?
Croatia42,53184EU NATOYes
Romania41,63483EU NATOYes
Slovakia41,51590EU NATOYes
Latvia40,17788EU NATOYes
Panama40,17783No, but close USA tiesNo?

Naturally there are some quirks to a list like this. Some members – or arguably aspiring members – of the rich and free status quo coalition fall below my rather arbitrary GDP pet capita cutoff, Greece ($39,478/86GFS) and Bulgaria ($27,890/79GFS) most notably. Both countries are both NATO states and in the EU so they’re heavily involved in status quo coalition institutions, but theses are, in a sense free-but-not-rich countries, but they tend to move with rather than against the status quo coalition, so I think they mostly count as members.9 On the other hand are the rich-but-not-free countries, Hungary ($43,907/66GFS) and Turkey ($41,412/32GFS) which are also involved in status quo coalition institutions (both NATO, Hungary the EU) and it is of course immediately striking that these are the two obvious discontents with the Status Quo Coalition’s attitudes towards both the Russia-Ukraine and Syria crises. Not being free, it turns out, makes their fit with the coalition more awkward than it is for the countries that are free, but not yet rich. Yet both are, at least somewhat connected to the coalition despite that, often moving with it, complaints and all.

The other odd exception are countries in the Americas not named The United States and Canada. Guyana, the Bahamas and Panama all seem like they are both rich enough and free enough to be in the coalition and yet aren’t part of the formal institutions of it. This, it seems to me, is pretty clearly a product of proximity to the United States, both in that these countries already effectively have US security guarantees via the Monroe Doctrine (and so don’t need to be in something like NATO; that the United States would end up intervening in a major war in the Americas is almost a forgone conclusion, treaty or no treaty) and at the same time have felt themselves on the business end of American foreign policy in the region, which has often been profoundly unpleasant. Consequently, their relations with the United States are a much larger focus and the proximity of the United States constrains their options. We should, quite frankly, strive to do better by our neighbors than we have.

Nevertheless, while the core of the coalition is the United States and its European partners, tied together by NATO, that is not the whole of the coalition and most rich and free countries are part of it, regardless of where in the world they happen to be, with countries outside the North Atlantic often instead tied to the United States or other members in other ways.

Now one may well argue the coalition is just a figment of my imagination, but I’d argue that the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine had demonstrated anything but. While many countries were willing to vote against Russia at the UN, the number of countries willing to sustain real economic costs by either supporting sanctions or sending meaningful aid to Ukraine was far more narrow and maps fairly well on the coalition as formulated above. The coalition action here is striking because none of the countries currently aiding Ukraine or sanctioning Russia had any sort of treaty obligation to do so. Instead, the coalition leapt to Ukraine’s aid with everything short of war (including free weapons, training, economic assistance and intelligence sharing) to defend the status quo, in which they are so invested. This is why, I’d argue, the response to the War in Ukraine and previously to cross-border conquests by ISIS was so much more intense than status quo coalition responses to other humanitarian crises, because it threatened a core component of the status quo, that territorial acquisition by conquest is not permitted in the international system.

Via Wikipedia, a map of countries that had sent aid to Ukraine. It does a good job of showing how ‘fuzzy’ the boundaries of the coalition can be, but also how countries very much not in the coalition (e.g. Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan) may still align with it for other security reasons.

What I want to stress here is an understanding of the coalition that it is not ‘countries in the thrall of the United States.’ Rather it is that this is a collection of countries which have developed, both economically and politically, in similar ways. Because of that similar development, they have come to have similar interests and values. And because they have already shaped the international system to favor those interests and values, they tend to act in concert in support of that international system, those interests and those values. I think this coalition, in some form, would continue to exist even without the United States and it would be a major force in international politics.

But of course the United States does exist, which brings us to…

The United States and the Status Quo Coalition

The United States’ position as ‘team captain’ of the status quo coalition is almost over-determined: it is the second largest bloc member by territory, has more than twice the population of any other member, the largest economy (six times larger than the next bloc member), one of the highest GDP-per-capitas, the most powerful military and is also ideologically one of the founders of the bloc, being both one of the origin points for modern liberal democracy and largely responsible for creating the bloc during the Cold War.

So while I think the coalition may well have emerged without the United States, it is no surprise that, the United States being a thing that exists, the coalition is often regarded (wrongly) by Americans and Russian propagandists alike as simply a tool of American Imperialism – a collection of smaller states huddled around Columbia‘s skirts. That reading is a mistake and it leads to misjudging how the coalition will act, because the coalition isn’t bound together by American power but by common interests and so behaves differently.

For the United States leading the coalition, the mistake is to assume that the members of the coalition are bound by American power (hard or soft), rather than by their own interests. That isn’t to say that US ‘soft power’ doesn’t matter. I think it matters quite a lot and is part of why the coincidence of values in the coalition is so strong. But when it comes to getting countries to act, interests are often much stronger. And the key interest at play here is a commitment to the status quo.

What that means is that United States leadership in the coalition (and consequently, US global leadership) is tied to the perception that the United States is, on net, a reliable guarantor of the status quo. What is going to shake the coalition is not outside pressure (which is, as we’ll see, a weak lever), but the United States as ‘team captain’ acting in ways that destabilize the status quo. This, I’d argue, is why the Iraq War seemed to shake the coalition so badly – it reflected an attempt to revise the status quo by expanding the coalition by force. It’s also why the Trump presidency’s promises of substantial revision to the United States’ place in the international system prompted concerns from the coalition as well.

But leading the coalition is good for the United States. For one, the vast network of interlinked institutions the coalition runs were built with US economic interests in mind and so tend to be favorable to them. Remember during the pandemic when all of the supply chains went haywire and prices rose dramatically? That’s what things would be like all the time in a less ‘globalized’ world – Americans would end up quite a bit poorer.10 This is a positive sum arrangement: the United States benefits a lot from the status quo it created, but other countries also benefit, which is what makes that status quo durable. But all of that free trade, free movement of ideas, free movement of capital and so on is facilitated by coalition institutions, like SWIFT, the IMF and so on.

Leading the coalition is also, frankly, good for American security interests. Alone, the United States is a power that a rising competitor (like the PRC) could imagine, if not defeating, at least excluding from substantial parts of the world. But ensconced in the coalition that becomes much harder, because challenging the United States risks trade agreements with France, or military action from Japan, or economic warfare from Australia, or diplomatic retaliation from Brussels. And remember for the United States, like every status quo country, our interest is not having a war in the first place. A system that thus raises the cost of challenging US leadership to the point that no country would attempt it is a system that makes a major war involving the USA directly a lot less likely, which is good, actually.

Not only does the coalition reinforce the American position by providing a ready suite of allies, it makes creating a revisionist coalition really hard because most of the best allies to have are already taken. Revisionist powers find themselves arriving at the pick-up basketball tournament to find that every player worth having is already only Team Status Quo, with only North Korea and Iran sitting on the bench waiting to get picked. And so long as the United States remains a reliable steward of the status quo, that is likely to remain the case, because the very things that make a country a good pick for your team – being a developed, highly productive country with strong institutions – make them more likely to instead join Team Status Quo.

For the voting public in the United States, all of this means it is necessary to come to understand that a lot of the good things we enjoy are as much a product of our reputation (again, see the polling above) as a reasonably reliable steward of the status quo as they are of US power directly. That in turn needs to influence political calculations about the costs and benefits of different courses of action: the cost for the United States of deciding to revise the status quo is potentially much higher than it seems, because it shakes the foundations of all of these mostly-invisible institutions that are in fact the root of a lot of the United States’ global power. Because the United States isn’t the king or general of the status quo coalition, it’s the ‘team captain.’ If it proves to be a bad team captain, the team may well choose a new captain, or disband altogether, with catastrophic implications for American interests.

From the outside, the mistake is to assume that applying a sufficient challenge to the United States and a sufficient degree of pressure will cause balancing to reassert itself and the coalition to fall apart. Both Russia and China have tried a strategy of trying to crowbar a wedge between the EU and the United States. I will not say such a thing is impossible, but it is pushing uphill: the community of interests is real and pushes back. Almost inevitably something, usually reminders of Russia and the PRC’s revanchist territorial claims, or some other international crisis, reminds everyone that they do, in fact, share interests and values. Instead of coming apart with pressure, the coalition solidifies with pressure because the pressure redirects everyone’s attention to those communal interests (rather than our petty squabbles, of which there are many). Since the community of interests is real, that pulls the bloc back together for collective action.

And that effect makes large-scale revisionist aims quite hard to achieve. To be clear, the most obvious sort of revisionist aims are shifts in territorial boundaries, but equally this goes for attempts to revise the structural of the global economy, for instance to de-dollarize it, or get many countries to move away from status quo coalition financial centers, or to get rid of the IMF and the World Bank, or substantially revise assumptions about freedom of navigation. For moves that require a critical mass of large economies in order to work, as with a decisive, global shift away from the dollar and euro, the problem is that there is a large bloc of big, rich countries that are largely uninterested in a revision to the economic status quo and who trade with everyone. You may want to be rid of the dollar and the euro, but it is going to be rather hard to convince the Germans.

That doesn’t make such revisions impossible, but it guarantees that accomplishing even minor revisionist aims is going to incur outsized costs. Of course the most striking example of this are the massive costs that Russia has incurred trying to shift its border to the west. But the PRC’s efforts to revise the status quo by shifting the governance of Hong Kong and pushing territorial claims in East Asia have also, slowly but surely, pushed the status quo coalition powers to begin pushing back and relations between the EU and the PRC seem to get frostier every month.

Moreover, the coalition doesn’t seem likely to go away. Once countries become rich and free, they tend to stay that way. Without a doubt there are politicians and parties in most status quo coalition countries that promise to pull their countries out of the coalition, usually on a nationalistic basis. In practice it seems to be hard (though surely not impossible) for such leaders to actually win elections and yet harder still once they’ve won elections to actually cleanly break with the fairly complex web of interlocking interests and institutions that tie them with the coalition. The experience of Hungary and Turkey’s ‘illiberal democracies’ provides something of a demonstration as neither country has yet managed to fully align away from the coalition.

That doesn’t mean I think countries will never leave, but it does mean that I think countries will tend to join the coalition at a faster clip than they leave. Global incomes, after all, are rising and seem set to keep rising. Remember: the interests that bind the coalition together are a product of economics as much as of politics. And unlike the zero-sum game of empire, where each empire has strong incentives not to let new powers join the ’empire club,’ economic development is positive sum. Rising incomes in the developing world are good news economically for the rich status quo powers as those developing economies ship out the raw materials rich economies require and buy the goods they make. Rising incomes in developing countries make them better trade partners as rising productivity means they both have more to export and more money to spend on imported goods. Moreover, as noted, high income, democratic countries tend to be stable and not create many problems (like refugee flows) which is also good news for the rich-and-free club.

Consequently, the status quo coalition wants to encourage other countries to be like it: rich and free. And quite a lot of countries are developing with that as a goal. So while I expect that here and there countries will, for internal political reasons, backslide out of the coalition, barring some major catastrophe it seems likely that the status quo coalition will grow, rather than shrink, over time. The big systemic risks here would seem, of course, to be nuclear war, another pandemic or climate change and it is no accident that the coalition countries tend to be quite worried about these. That said, it is worth remembering that even pessimistic climate change projections now expect that the impacts of climate change will cause global incomes to rise more slowly, not fall.11

As a result, I don’t think the coalition is likely to go away. As a historian, I’m always really reluctant in making Big Predictions and I think it is worth reiterating the caution that we do not know if this current arrangement is a mature or stable form of human organization in an industrial/post-industrial world. Most of the world isn’t really even fully industrialized yet and even the parts that are haven’t been long enough to make it clear that anything is settled in the long-term. And it’s not clear that, as global incomes rise, those rising countries will find the status quo as ameniable as the current crop of rich-and-free countries, especially since it sure seems like the ‘free’ part matters as much, if not more, than the ‘rich’ part.

At the same time, as a student of the history of war, the emergence of a durable coalition in international affairs with an interest in limiting at least some kinds of wars (because let us not pretend all of the status quo powers are pacifists) is an exciting development in the growing ‘Long Peace‘ that we may hope begins to indicate that humanity might at long last be outgrowing war.

So the status quo coalition isn’t necessarily the beginning of the End of History (Volume II: We Mean It This Time). But it is, I suspect, likely to be a durable component of the international system and, for as long as the United States remains a reliable steward of it, the foundation of American global leadership.

  1. It is striking but oh-so-typical of failed containment that one group holds aloof for what seem like cultural reasons. Rome only just wins the Third Samnite War – had the Italian Greeks joined in, the Romans probably would have lost. Instead, the Greeks of S. Italy opt to wage their own war (the Pyrrhic one), lose that one too and thus their independence. The refusal of key Greek states to join the balancing coalition against Philip II of Macedon is a similar sort of lesson: sitting out the Big Containment War can have catastrophic consequences for the folks sitting it out on the benches.
  2. 3. Japan, 4. Germany, 6. UK, 7. France, 8. Italy and 9. Canada
  3. South Korea, Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, and Turkey
  4. Switzerland
  5. Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia
  6. Tervetuloa and hopefully soon Välkommen! Assuming Google Translate has not let me down!
  7. American readers! ‘Liberal’ here means ‘with liberty’ not ‘of the political left.’ So a democracy with protections for core liberties and human rights is a liberal democracy.
  8. Most notably recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, but compare the successful creation of rich and free regimes – albeit it took some time – in East Asia (Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan) and Eastern Europe. It doesn’t always fail.
  9. Note for instance both are active supporters of Ukraine against Russia.
  10. Which is why even when then-president Trump revised NAFTA, he came up with a replacement that…was mostly just NAFTA (the USMCA). The deal was already very good for the United States, because we wrote it.
  11. ‘Rise more slowly,’ to be clear, is bad. It means more people in poverty longer than they needed to be. That’s bad. But it is a different kind of bad than global incomes falling (more people in poverty than yesterday), with different implications.

441 thoughts on “Collections: The Status Quo Coalition

  1. The paragraph immediately above the image” Via Wikipedia, a map of countries on Russia’s ‘Unfriendly Countries List’ ” seems to start halfway through a sentence. As it stands, you paragraph begins “ing to sanction-bust in favor of Russia.”

    Great post, thank you!

  2. Regarding Azar Gat’s War on Civilization (a book I generally liked), I always found his section on biology to be the weakest. “Human sare hardwired for war because Darwin” is an evopsych-tier take that doesn’t remotely pass the rigor test of current paleogenetics. His reasoning is very much a lot of handwavibg without relying on, you know, actual genes (or even faint suggestions of purifying/positive selection on ancient human DNA). Ditto for his take on gender. I assume Gat himself isn’t to blame and largely drew on 1) the poor state of the art/sequencing data at the time where it was a lot easier to carve your just-so stories in what was available, and 2) the then-climate of constant prattling about the ‘human state of nature’ or ‘nature/nurture’ debates that current-day biologists have largely moved on from, despite what loudmouths on the internet would have you believe.

    A much simpler explanation for the ‘maladaptation’ is that societies up to the very recent part followed warmongering cultural customs they inherited from their messy, distant history. No need to invoke ‘evolution’ or ‘genetics’ for this (and if you have to, for the love of God provide some *genes*)

    1. I believe the “evolution” being invoked in the latter case is metaphorical. The reason societies up to the very recent past inherited warmongering cultural customs and not pacifist ones is that historically, warmongers tended to wipe out pacifists.

    2. I’m not going to dispute the rigor of biological paleo-genetic argument, but genes do play a part in what makes us who we are.

      My background is mental health psychology.

      As such while there would be no argument from me that the question of nature versus nurture is the wrong question, nature and nurture are part of the human condition.The tendency to react with violence arises from evolutionary pressures to maximize reproductive success.

      Fight, flight, and freeze are driven by emotions, which arise from changes in blood pH values that are mediated by beliefs that are triggered by thoughts that have underlying assumptions (the cognitive-behavioural model).

      This means that confrontations trigger a fight, flight, freeze response.

      So, from cognitive-behavioural perspective, fighting is one of the triad of responses humans have, and hence one can claim that they’re hardwired; but, with the large caveat that these responses are mediated by psycho-social factors.

      This leads us as to how to understand our reactions to psycho-social stressors, and the human ability to rationalize our actions in concordance with our beliefs. This then into arena of the hard problem. How can our belief that we are conscience beings be reconciled with free will, where physics suggest that reality is deterministic where randomness is not equivalent to free will?

      1. Philosophically, the resolution of this apparent paradox seems simple to me.

        It depends on how you define the ‘self’ and ‘will.’ My identity, my ‘I,’ is not a disembodied ghostly floating unmoved mover. ‘I’ am a self-reflective process that performs operations we might loosely call ‘computational,’ even if the mechanics aren’t at all like how a computer would do things.

        “I” have free will insofar as I am able to arrive at conclusions and act on them, but the definition of how “I” act upon the world is constrained by the laws of physics, because without physics there would be no material substrate on which “I” could exist. No gravity and magnetism and so on means no atoms, only void, and in the absence of the atoms, there would be no mind, no “I.”

        No person who is not being willfully silly says “I wish to fly, but gravity causes me to fall if I jump off a ledge, therefore gravity violates my free will.” It is no less silly to argue that my decision as to whether to fight, flee, or freeze is influenced by, oh, blood sugar levels, and that this violates my free will.

        I am large, I contain multitudes, and more specifically I damn well contain my own blood sugar.

        1. Simon_Jester said, “Philosophically, the resolution of this apparent paradox seems simple to me.”

          I think that the philosophers arguing over Dualism and Physicalism would disagree on how simple ‘I’ is.

          Starting with Ryle describing Descarte’s ideas as a category mistake, along with Princess Elizabeth’s attack. Then the Behaviorist theory in turn attacked by the counter argument by Putnam, and the continuous back and forth by Searle, Jackson, and up to Chalmers etc..

          We feel we have a self that we can call ‘I,’ which generates a very persistent belief that we can choose to calculate our best options, yet we live in a universe that appears to be deterministic.

          If true, all our choices are inevitable.

          Which is not to say I disagree with your approach, only that it is a delusion, or illusion, depending on how it is framed.

      2. Violence is certainly part of human nature but organized mass violence isn’t. No one has an instinctual need to do a stranger’s bidding because they went to Westpoint. It takes a lot of training to get humans to be good soldiers because it doesn’t come naturally to us. But it takes zero training to get a human to run from danger because that’s what we naturally want. Human mass violence would likely be more like raiding and vendettas without militaries making the violence more efficient.

        1. The style of fighting you’re describing is only as old as the Bronze Age. Prior to that, we appear to have fought in the same way as other apes: sneak attacks, melting into the environment when things got hairy. Low- to moderate-lethality raids, in other words.

          Of course, this sort of supports your point. Modern warfare is so different from anything our ancient ancestors dealt with that evolution simply hasn’t had time to keep up. Even assuming that First Systems Warfare is instinctive, or at least has some basis in evolutionary history, we’ve only been obliterating towns via high explosives for a few generations. Sure, it’s a serious selection pressure, but it’s hardly had time to work.

          Again, though, it’s worth pointing out that this is seriously steel-manning the argument. A more rational view of human evolutionary history would focus on farming, since that’s what the VAST majority of humanity did. (Interestingly, farmers engaged in First Systems Warfare quite late–see Scotland and England. So at least First Systems Warfare and farming are not mutually exclusive. Rolling barrages and farming, however, very much are.)

          1. War Before Civilization by Lawrence H. Keeley

            Raids are not lower in lethality than wars.

          2. The nature of the wounds was different. An arrow or blade inflict dramatically different types of trauma on the human body than high explosives. A system adapted to handle one cannot be assumed to be adapted to the other.

            The fight-or-flight instinct is also going to be affected (assuming there is an evolutionary component to this, which is dubious). First Systems warfare doesn’t involve the “stand still while people attack you” aspect that a shield wall or linear combat with muskets requires. This would result in different selection pressures, the former favoring “flight” and the latter favoring a suppression of this reaction.

          3. How are you defining First Systems Warfare? Wikipedia speaks of First Generation warfare as all warfare based on infantry formation fighting, from antiquity until the end of rank and file musket battle in the 19th century. The defining feature of which is “stand still while people attack you”

    3. You don’t need to point to specific genes to talk about evolution. Darwin came up with natural selection without any idea what genes even were, and could make predictions like “an orchid with this shape implies a moth with a match proboscis”.

      I don’t think it’s an extraordinary claim to say that aggression is one of the basic human impulses; it’s common elsewhere after all, including in our nearest relatives the chimps, and seems influenceable by taking testosterone.

      And I know Gat would say that warmongering is more than some arbitrary custom. As our host has said, it’s often a response to personal or social incentives (not always the same).

      (One of the bigger problems with evopsych is that much of the purported rational calculus works just as well as either “evolved mechanisms” or people responding rationally to incentives on the fly.)

    4. Genetics is not the be-all, end-all of evolution. First, we don’t know exactly how genes become organisms–transcription is not a simple process, epigenetics does something but we’re still not 100% sure what, and environmental factors influence final outcomes in various ways (there are a bunch of genes that determine height, for example, but early diet also heavily influences it).

      The idea that evolutionary arguments necessarily must include genetics is disproven by the fact that we can determine trilobite evolution. Cetacean studies have shown that genetics, morphology, and biochemistry all produce similar clades, so morphology is no less valid than genetics.

      There ARE reasons to believe humans are hard-wired for violence. For example, other apes engage in deliberate violence, often using simple tools, to remove competing groups from territory. In paleontology the argument “These other members of the clade have X character, ergo this member of the clade probably does despite us not seeing it” is a valid argument. It’s a fairly weak argument, and must be discarded when any data are present, but it IS a valid argument.

      Further, human males are built to absorb a surprising amount of punishment. And we are, quite frankly, expendable. One man can produce a fair number of children, while women typically max out at one a year (“A flower must never fly from bee, to bee, to bee” as the king of Siam said in the musical). Typically masculine traits, such as strong jaws, allow for men to take harder punches before we suffer damage, and allow us to deliver harder punches. This is again weak evidence, but corroborates the cladistic argument.

      All that said….it’s SUPER easy to read what we want to read into such evidence. And evolution doesn’t care about what “should” happen, only what DOES happen. There are multiple breeding strategies that would reduce the signal from warfare-based selection. None of this addresses women, either, which is not insignficant.

      And honestly this is the wrong way to look at things anyway. 90% or more of humanity was farmers for the vast majority of our history. THAT is where we should be looking for selection pressures. And the same things that make one good at fighting make one good at subsistence farming. It’s not easy, and it was extremely common to damage one’s self; being able to take a few blows before you were incapacitated was perhaps more important in farming than in warfare. In war you’re exposed to violence occasionally; most of the time you’re bored out of your mind, marching and mending and setting up camp and suchlike. Farming using Medieval (and up to inter-World War) methods, on the other hand, presented opportunities to be damaged every single day.

      This illustrates a deep flaw in Evo-Psych: What you choose to look at must be VERY carefully chosen, because it’s going to determine the answer you get. If you ask “Are humans adapted to combat?” you’ll get one answer. If you ask “What pressures influenced recent human evolution?” you get a totally different one.

    5. Yeah, it’s a ridiculous assertion. Humans are hardwired to put on uniforms and march in ranks? So much of military training is about getting humans to go against their natural instincts. A poorly trained army is one where humans still act like humans. They run from danger and not towards it, they loudly question ideas that don’t make sense, they punch a rude stranger that yelled at them for not making their bed.

      1. The defining characteristics of warfare are not putting on uniforms and marching in ranks. Marching bands do both; are they therefore engaged in warfare? Probably no man did either while serving William the Conqueror, Alfred the Great or Ivar the Boneless; does it follow that none of them ever fought a war?

        War is an act of co-operative violence. As the master said: “War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil *our* will.”

        For creatures to be capable of war they have to be capable of cooperating with each other, and of violence against rivals. That is all.

        It seems absurd to say that humans are in any sense naturally incapable of either of those things.

          1. Can you therefore make your point more explicitly and with less poetic licence, so that I might more clearly understand it?

      2. Humans are obviously not hardwired to put on uniforms and march in ranks as such, but they are clearly hardwired to make sacrifices and take risks for other members of their ingroup, and they often define their “ingroup” by dress. Just look at any teenage clique, where you will find they all dress alike, be it goth or punk or metal or whatever, or at any office where management has declared a “dress down” regimen: after a brief period of experimentation, all the men dress alike (commonly dress shirts without ties and chinos, possibly with sports coats) and so do all the women. In most military units, the “uniform” (as in consistent and universal) dress is dictated from on high, but it still works to make the individual soldiers recognize each other as members of their ingroup.

  3. This is an interesting post. I’m by default inclined to the “human nature has not changed, nor will the universal dynamics of international relations” stance. But industrialization is in fact a change that could have the scale to affect such universal dynamics.

    One issue here is that using “freedom” as an explanatory variable is tricky. “Freedom” is not a trivial concept, nor a scalar; attempts to rank “freedom” on a single scale are fraught, because it has multiple dimensions and the different dimensions trade off between each other. In particular, the rhetoric of freedom is a major part of the propaganda of the US, both internally and internationally, and also of particular US political factions (in different ways). Thus, high-profile public ratings of different countries in terms of “freedom” are likely to be just as much propaganda creations as valid measurements of a real underlying variable; and in particular, “freedom” in the propagandistic sense is largely correlated to “how much US propaganda institutions like you”. Therefore, using these rankings to try to explain countries’ support of a US-dominated international order is rather circular; countries that vocally oppose the US are likely to suffer in the rankings just for having done so.

    Looking over the Freedom House rankings in somewhat more detail, I’m comfortable saying they are substantially ideologically influenced. As an example, Germany outscores the US in every category, including “freedom of expression”. This is despite the fact that Germany explicitly bans various forms of Nazi-related political expression (a fact that’s even noted in the writeup). By the tone of the writeups, it seems that the official suppression of disfavored political expression counts as a positive in their “freedom of expression” category; the US gets dinged for “hate speech and misinformation” on social media. This in particular doesn’t necessarily bear on the conclusion re: the status quo coalition, but it suggests that the Freedom House rankings might similarly be subordinated to ideological preferences in other ways.

    1. They’ve always been strongly ideological, they were strongly ideologically influenced (on the right, broadly) during the Cold War too. That said, I think it’s probably impossible to rate “freedom” scores and *not* be ideologically influenced- how you think about and define freedom is inherently ideological.

    2. Of course it’s highly ideological. But I do think it’s gesturing in the right direction enough that a 99, a 70, and a 40 tell you that places are usefully different from each other in the sort of ways you’d care about for this kind of index.

      1. I think it helps to think about Freedom House in a neutral sense rather than a morally loaded sense. They’re rating societies by how well they conform to broadly, Anglo-American liberal values (in the sense that both, say, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan were liberals). A society with a 90 rating is going to conform better to American liberal values than a society with a 30 rating. Is it going to be a *better* society to live in? Sure, if you hold to liberal values- if you’re a communist, or a nationalist, or an Islamist, probably not.

    3. On the face of it, you are “free” to the extent that other people can not arbitrarily force you to do things you don’t want to do. People banned from praising Adolf Hitler, for example, are likely to feel their freedom has been noticeably infringed only if they sometimes wish to do so.

      I might point out that Germany has PR parliamentary democracy at every level, and consequently a lot of vaguely centrist coalition governments. The United States, on the other hand, has presidential democracy at every level, and perhaps the most exclusive two-party system in the democratic world.

      The median American voter, then, is probably a lot more likely than the median German voter to find himself being ordered around by a government controlled by some extremist he disagrees with.

      So Freedom House are probably absolutely right.

    4. Germany has more freedom of speech than the US de facto. The fact that Holocaust denialism is illegal here is a lot less relevant than things that libertarians do not care about but remain important.

      For example, in the US, any kind of political organization in a safe state (i.e. most of them) is expected to engage in flattery of the governor to an extent that recalls Early Modern absolute monarchies; in New York, if your explanation of a problem (say, the inability to build infrastructure or housing) was “Andrew Cuomo is bad,” while he was in power, it was treated with about the same scorn as if youd propose, federally, that the US ritually put the constitution through a shredder.

      This matters, because most modern-day dictatorships don’t restrict free speech in the same way Cold War communist states did. Before Xi brought back this system, the system in the PRC was that you could be critical of the state as long as you didn’t engage in any organized attempt to change things: “Hu is lying about X” was fine, but “let’s boycott Y” would get your social media account suspended. As in Ancient Greece per Bret’s How to Polis series, tyranny is not especially formalized in such a system, but everyone knows what you can and cannot say.

      And then there’s how anocracies work. Press freedom organizations working in places like the Philippines, Iraq, or Mexico are a lot less worried about formal state censorship than about gangs, local magnates, and private armies (in Iraq, Israeli human rights activist and student Elizabeth Tsurkov was just confirmed to have been kidnapped by a militia, not by the state). Hence the point about social media hate speech.

      1. The question of what flatteries you have to make to advance your position through the political machine is not that closely related to the question of what things you are forbidden by force of law from saying. “Freedom of expression” relates substantially to the latter, not really at all to the former. There is no free speech right to have your political program taken seriously, even if it’s a good and a wise one.

        Likewise, if you really have local militias or other extragovernmental armed forces attacking people for what they say, that is a very different issue, and a much worse issue, than having hate speech on social media. Bringing up the former in the context of the latter seems like a dodge.

        1. It’s not “advance through the political machine” – it’s “have literally any ability to organize.” For the same reason, there are independent attempts to quantify the levels of civil liberties in a polity that incorporate organizational things like workers’ ability to unionize.

          And the issue of hate speech online dovetails into SWATting. Is it the same as militias in Iraq? No. Should it count as a restriction on speech? Yes.

        2. The trouble with Americans is that they tend to be completely focused on government even as private companies build their own fiefdoms. Force is force, whether you are forced to do something by law or by he will of an unaccountable corporation matters little. Freedom of expression in law is useless if you don’t have ways to use this right, and so on. If you read the constitutions of Soviet states for example, you’ll find many freedoms that were actually more theoretical than practical. The law is not everything.

          1. The heyday of corporate private power in the United States was the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Unionization of workers was opposed literally by deadly force. People who wouldn’t sell out to monied interests would suffer a variety of “accidents”. It would be inconceivable for anything like that to happen in the modern USA; getting banned from Twitter isn’t even in the same league.

          2. Suffice to say that while private corporate power isn’t at the highest point in all of American history, it can still be ‘too high’ or ‘trending upwards’ without being at ‘literally the Gilded Age’ levels.

        3. Yes, and a state where dissidents are tortured or murdered by extra-governmental paramilitaries will typically have a much lower Freedom House score than one where all that happens is that dissidents are abused without consequence for being [slurs] on social media.

          You’re absolutely right that there are matters of degree here! But we’re still measuring essentially the same thing. Namely, the question of how much force does a country’s power-holders use to “kick down” at those who might seek to break their hold. Since not all the power-holders are politicians, not all the force that gets used will always be aligned with a political party. And it certainly won’t all be governmental.

      2. Compared to the US, Germany

        * has much higher legal certainty. The US justice system is more capricious, being heavily influenced by money, pressure groups, public opinion etc. This matters because the threat of being of sued in the US limits freedom of expression, e.g. in the case of American anti-discrimination law, which can be positively Orwellian. In contrast, a Holocaust denier in Germany can usually avoid punishment unless he is very foolish, because it is clear what the legal boundaries are.

        * is (obviously!) more conformist. If you have strange views, your prestige (often in the form of an academic credential) matters more than in the US. Debates are more often held with the expectation of consensus-building rather than exchanging ideas. This results in an intellectual climate where many participants are erudite, but also hostile to innovation. I find American intellectuals far more interesting than German ones, for mainly that reason.

        1. On the other hand, Germany is not the only country on the list with a higher Freedom Score than the US, and may not reflect the only way to “game the system” to get a higher score.

      3. I don’t mind banning the speech of Nazis (which holocaust deniers usually are) because Nazis don’t respect other people’s freedom of speech when they are in power, so other people don’t have an obligation to respect their freedom of speech when they are out of power. But, that said, I strongly disagree with the point of the first part of your comment:

        “Germany has more freedom of speech than the US de facto. The fact that Holocaust denialism is illegal here is a lot less relevant than things that libertarians do not care about but remain important.

        For example, in the US, any kind of political organization in a safe state (i.e. most of them) is expected to engage in flattery of the governor to an extent that recalls Early Modern absolute monarchies; in New York, if your explanation of a problem (say, the inability to build infrastructure or housing) was “Andrew Cuomo is bad,” while he was in power, it was treated with about the same scorn as if youd propose, federally, that the US ritually put the constitution through a shredder.”

        When other people heap scorn on you, that’s an expression of their freedom of speech, not a violation of yours. I don’t have much patience or respect for the kind of conservatives and right-wingers who think they’re being censored when their opponents say mean things about them. I don’t see why I should respect that line of argument more when it’s coming from someone who is personally neither conservative nor right-wing.

        1. “Andrew Cuomo is bad” was not a conservative take. At all. Note how for years after Me Too, activists didn’t even try pushing it with him, even though once the first complaints surfaced, it became clear that everyone who was around him knew. Only when he was weakened due to corona did things seriously start coming out.

          The issue with safe states is not at all ideological. The problem with New York isn’t that you’re expected to be ideologiclly liberal; it’s that you’re expected to flatter the monarch, so to speak. And then it’s the same everywhere else the same party expects to stay in power indefinitely – California, Massachusetts, Texas, Alabama (think how Roy Moore’s pedophilia only became public knowledge when he was running for Senate – and the people who made this knowledge public subsequently received death threats), what have you.

          1. ““Andrew Cuomo is bad” was not a conservative take. At all.”

            I didn’t say it was. My point was that “It’s a limitation of freedom of speech if saying certain things will lead to people heaping a lot of scorn on you” reminds me of the stance of many conservatives. Again, when other people heap scorn on you, that’s an expression of their freedom of speech, not a violation of yours.

          2. The critical point of difference here is whether the bad consequences for freedom of speech are “top-down” or “bottom-up.” Freedom of speech, like all individual rights, is much more about protecting an individual’s right to “punch up” than their right to “punch down” or even “punch sideways.”

            This is precisely because punching up is normally very difficult when it isn’t protected by law. The role of individual rights in the social order is to bind elites and protect the masses, and at the same time to force the masses to show restraint rather than going on pogroms against minorities.

            If criticizing Andrew Cuomo results in Andrew Cuomo using his extraordinary political power to retaliate against you, that undermines your ability to speak freely.

            If criticizing a penniless orphan with cancer results in everyone else independently deciding to shun you, that’s not a diminution of your freedom of speech. That’s just you doing something very unpopular.

            The difference is that Andrew Cuomo has the power and influence to stack the deck in his favor, artificially persuading people to help those who flatter him and ruin his critics. The orphan does not have this kind of power, and so other people’s reactions to what you say about them is going to be more authentic.

            Freedom of speech is about protecting you from the artificial consequences of offending powerful people in society or of trying to speak on behalf of a group “official” society would prefer to silence. Not about protecting you from the natural consequences of making yourself very unpopular.

            Unfortunately, this creates obvious gray areas, and there’s a lot of “where do you draw the line” questions in play.

    5. Even if you’re right, I don’t think this refutes Dr. Devereaux’s argument. If Freedom House’s definition of “freedom” is narrow and ideological, that just makes it more noteworthy that so many countries share it.

      I also don’t think there’s a compelling alternate take on “freedom” that states outside the coalition or on its margins have embraced. The two rich non-free countries Dr. Dx names- Hungary and Turkey- really are less free in concrete, non-ideological ways; their autocratic leaders have suppressed political dissent, taken various hostile actions toward ethnic and religious minorities, reduced the legal rights of LGBTQ people, etc. Russia and the PRC are likewise. There’s no alternate freedom here, unless you stretch the concept to include “freedom from Western scolding” or “freedom from living near Uyghurs.”

  4. As an American broadly critical of the US’s international goals and actions, this was a really informative read! One thing I wish you addressed more was the way it’s *also* in the US/coalition’s interest to have poor and unstable second-tier countries with extraction-based economies that export raw goods (food, textiles, oil, minerals) at much lower prices. There’s also the way that developing countries getting richer so they can buy *our* exported stuff is at odds with the long history of racism in our foreign policy.

    Otherwise though this was definitely a great post, I’ll have to keep the failure of balancing in mind when thinking about international politics in the future

    1. As I recall, natural resource extraction makes up a much larger fraction of the of the economies of Australia, Canada and Norway than of the United States. Do you consider them to be kept in the position of “poor and unstable second-tier countries”?

      It might be better to look at this the other way round. Unstable countries are poor because violent competition between people struggling for power destroys human sources of wealth; leaving them with nothing valuable except natural resources that no politician or warlord can destroy.

      1. > As I recall, natural resource extraction makes up a much larger fraction of the of the economies of Australia, Canada and Norway than of the United States. Do you consider them to be kept in the position of “poor and unstable second-tier countries”?

        They have large primary sectors *for developed countries*, but they are developed, and have been since before the current international financial system existed. The typical claim here is that the liberalizing “structural adjustments” imposed by the IMF and World Bank destroy infant manufacturing sectors by forcing them to compete with far more efficient firms in developed countries.

        1. Then why didn’t they destroy the infant manufacturing sectors of Canada, Australia and Norway by forcing them to compete with far more efficient forms in developed countries?

          (I feel sure there will be an answer to this. Every conspiracy theory can come up with an explanation for everything. But I am curious.)

          1. Okay, so, first of all, the economic history of Norway was that it was the poorest country in Northern Europe until it got the oil; when it began exploring, it even invited then-richer Sweden to join in and lend its technical heft, but Sweden refused so Norway got all the oil wealth itself. So the answer re Norway’s manufacturing industry is “what manufacturing industry?”.

            Canada and Australia only industrialized during the Great Depression, when the new global system of national protectionism put them in the same trade bloc as the UK under Imperial Preference. Previously they were still wealthy but not really industrialized. Then when Imperial Preference ended as the UK joined the EC in 1973, Australia suddenly had to compete with everyone else and got a lot less rich, and the same is true of Canada; both went down from American levels of labor productivity to British levels subsequently.

            None of this has anything to do with third-world deindustrialization, a process that is happening right now (see Dani Rodrik on premature deindustrialization), not because of an IMF conspiracy or any such nonsense but because the share of manufacturing in the world economy is falling due to growth in services.

          2. There’s an argument that it has, sometimes happened to developed economies. The pithy name The Economist came up with is “Dutch Disease”, and it’s arguably a weird side effect of comparative advantage. Essentially, the idea was that Dutch manufacturing sectors atrophied after the discovery of offshore oil.

            This nonetheless provides an alternative answer to why countries with large extractive sectors end up continuing to be dominated by resource extraction: It’s often shockingly lucrative.

          3. Alon Levy, is “the share of manufacturing in the world economy is falling” because of growth in services or because of falling demand for the products of industry? If the poor can’t buy and the middling folks and rich won’t, products don’t sell.

          4. Mary: it’s because the efficiency of manufacturing is growing faster than the demand for it, same as with agriculture. It’s not really about inequality – global inequality has fallen in the last 20 years.

          5. “the economic history of Norway was that it was the poorest country in Northern Europe until it got the oil”

            According to MadRubicant these are the very circumstances that should have led its larger, richer, more developed neighbours to gang up against it and make it poor and unstable. Which they clearly didn’t.

            I don’t see the need for this conspiracy theory: It doesn’t require an alliance of malevolent wealthy states to keep a country with violent political conflict poor. As our host has observed on several occasions, violent political conflict can cause poverty perfectly well by itself. And it is the natural state of almost every known social species.

      2. Conversely, potentially unstable countries with natural resources give an effective way for warlords to convert military power into cash, enabling them to continue that violent struggle for power. Once poorer countries with easily exploitable natural resources start to slip into violence it’s a lot harder for them to get out of it. See Libya for example, where General Hafter’s forces are able to sustain themselves by controlling or extorting oil exports, or the many places Wagner is operating by looting local mines or the like.

      3. I think we may be seeing a conflict between the interests of “the United States,” viewed as an abstract unitary entity that cares deeply about its own GDP statistics and such, and powers and factions within the United States. Or, more broadly, powers within the multinational ‘status quo coalition’ and the coalition itself.

        To take a somewhat hypothetical example, the US’s long-term interests in the abstract might be expected to benefit from the West African nations of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire becoming thriving, flourishing industrial states. In the very specific short term, however, these are two of the world’s leading producers of cocoa beans, used to make chocolate. These nations’ production model revolves heavily on smallholding farmers producing cocoa beans as a cash crop for sale. The profits of the American ChocoCo corporation, meanwhile, depend heavily on being the sole purchaser of those beans at the lowest possible prices. If this specific supply chain is disrupted, even by something like “a competing buyer shows up,” their business model is heavily disrupted.

        The revenues of the ChocoCo corporation are something to the tune of, say, five billion dollars. If they think it reasonably likely that revenues will go down by 2% as a result of drastic destabilization of these two countries’ cocoa markets, it would be considerably to their advantage to plunk down, say, fifty million dollars’ worth of political donations specifically to influence US foreign policy towards those countries and ensure that nothing significant changes there.

        Which might well be enough to induce the US government to act contrary to the hypothetical long-term interests of the “status quo coalition.” ChocoCo’s way of profiting at these two countries’ expense might enable them to outbid policy changes that might one day lead to better results that ChocoCo couldn’t directly extract.

        1. Maybe, although it’s not clear that a paltry $50 million is enough to move the US political system very much.

          1. Not on something truly important, but it’s a lot on the scale of, say, convincing ten senators in a bloc to support something that they can pitch to another fifty senators as “fighting communism” or “promoting free trade” or whatever is popular that decade.

            If ChocoCo needed to radically reshape American policy towards the whole world on that kind of budget, they’d fail. If all they care about is American policy towards Ghana and Ivory Coast, they’ve got a lot more leverage.

            After all, it’s not like there’s an equal and opposite special interest that cares enough to spend fifty million on the opposite policies towards those two countries.

    2. Something to consider in evaluating US foreign policy: it is very easy to focus on bone-headed blunders like the Iraq war and miss all the boring stuff the US does to quietly maintain the status quo. Living in South Korea for a bit in in the early 10s really impressed this on me—having a bunch of mostly 20ish men hang around Seoul and Itaewon just to make sure the North Koreans know restarting the Korean War would be a bad idea isn’t exciting, but it’s a really good thing!

    3. I’m not sure it *is* in the US’s interests to have a big group of poor, second-tier countries because I don’t think being poor actually makes you good at selling resources or simple manufactured goods.

      The US is the world’s largest oil producer, for example, and the largest foreign supplier of oil to the US is Canada, the world’s 9th largest economy.

      I don’t think manufacturing is any different; more efficient manufacturing methods can keep costs low even as labor gets more expensive by letting each worker produce way more stuff. Same for farming; we produce way more food today than ever before with an ever-diminishing percentage of the global population involved in agriculture.

      I think a better explanation for the proliferation of second-tier, “middle income” countries is that it’s actually just really hard to go from being a poor, unfree country to a rich and free one. Middle income countries are often unstable because they are in transition and going from one kind of society to another tends to be an unstable process.

      Middle income countries can no longer rely on, for example, the subservience of illiterate peasants to secure political stability, but they also haven’t perfected the modern institutions needed to accommodate the political demands of an educated population with ample time and money available to make political demands. The old economic institutions of landowners extracting rent from subsistence farmers may also come into conflict with new groups of industrialists, foreign powers may intervene in favor one faction or another, and the economy is not yet robust enough to absorb sudden shocks in the way a rich country can.

      I think Brett argues pretty convincingly that it’s actually in the interests of rich countries to help middle-income countries through this in most cases. However, just because you live in a rich country today doesn’t mean you know how to turn a specific poor country into a rich one. Your efforts might be successful, might make no difference, or might actively make things worse (I’m sure it’s not hard to think of US interventions which resulted in all three).

      1. I think also, even maybe even if it is in the /medium and long-term/ interest of rich countries for more countries to be rich it is in the /short-term/ interest of a lot of people of influence in the rich countries for that not to happen because it requires competing in products currently dominated by already rich countries (and because of the first mover effect it’s also just hard to get even the middle-income countries’ own consumers to buy them)

    4. You might have a point about textiles, and the situation with food is …complicated, but regarding oil and minerals, I think your assumptions are wrong.

      Generally speaking, richer and more developed countries are better at extracting oil and many other minerals, and can sell them at a lower price, if at all. Norway has a highly developed oil and gas sector and is one of the world’s top exporters despite all of it’s resources being under water. The United States is now the largest producer of oil due to Hydraulic Fracturing, which no other country has managed to economically implement at the same scale.

      There are poor countries with resources, but you’ll find that they largely contract western companies, staffed by western workers (earning extra for hazard and hardship) while also paying significant bribes to local interests in order to extract the oil. Oil would be cheaper if Brazil’s or Nigeria’s oil and gas operating environment were more similar to Norway’s.

      With food, remember that the US is a net food exporter, one of the largest in the world. It gets complicated because a lot of it is enabled by low-paid migrant labor. But in general, more stable, richer, more developed countries, are better are producing food.

    5. I’m trying to weigh in the balance on the one hand cheap goods, and on the other unreliable access to them. I’m not convinced that this is on the whole in the interest of the coalition.

      Do you have in mind a particular example of this principle at work?

    6. My impression is the opposite: That the US would likey every country to be “free and rich” but doesn’t know a way of reliably getting a country there.

      1. Carter had tried that in Iran – just kick out the Shah and Iran will be free and rich.
        Clinton tried that in Somalia – defend aid agencies and Somalia will be free and rich.
        W. Bush tried that in Iraq – just kick out Saddam and Iraq will be free and rich.
        Obama tried in Libya – just bomb Muammar Gaddafi and Libya will be rich and free.
        Now the US try a new Cold (and hot) War. Just bleed Russia, as in the Cold War, and Russia will be rich and free.

        The US elite is very impressed with those “successes”. The same elite just hates Trump – four years in office and he did not start any war.

        1. I don’t think anyone is claiming that the current war will in any way reform Russia. The goal is simply to get the Russian army out of Ukraine, period.

          1. Nobody, not even Biden, is crazy and/or stupid enough to spend $100 Billion just to defend some Ukrainian territory. The goal is a regime change in Russia by bleeding Russia.

        2. >Carter had tried that in Iran – just kick out the Shah and Iran will be free and rich.

          The US was responsible for the downfall of the Shah? That’s a new one…

          >Nobody, not even Biden, is crazy and/or stupid enough to spend $100 Billion just to defend some Ukrainian territory.

          We are talking about the same country which had wasted trillions on their stupid Global War on Terror and incompetent nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan…
          This seems like penny-pinching in comparison.

          Besides the EU (countries + institutions) has spent nearly as much as the USA* despite having an economy about 25% smaller.

          *Only two and a half billion less than the USA according to the Kiel Institute, and that number excludes refugee costs:

          >The goal is a regime change in Russia by bleeding Russia.

          Weakening a hostile, imperialist, anti-democratic power seems more likely to me. Or signalling used to deter certain other regimes from engaging in military expansionism.

    7. I think your criticism hear, of post-colonial resource extraction economies, misses something important about post-colonial governance.

      The colonial overlord created a system of resource extraction then left, by either being forced out or by finding the relationship no longer beneficial.

      However, the system of imperial extraction doesn’t leave. It’s still there. The new local elites must deciede whether they (1) want to dismantal the system of imperial extraction for the benefit of all; or (2) co-opt the system of imperial extraction in a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss, but now speaking your language!”.

      The outside world, to engage in the states where the local elites took over the system of imperial extraction, only has the choice of either (1) engaging with the system of imperial extraction; or (2) not engaging with that state and its people.

      The system of imperial extraction isn’t maintained from outside the locality.

      1. At an extreme, the resource extraction apparatus and the systems to support it were in some instances originally the only vestige of industrial civilization in the country. Abandoning them would have meant literally going back to a tribal society of small farmers.

  5. Quite a nuanced and interesting discussion. I am a bit curious how you count “Coalition members”; is that from membership in an alliance with the USA?

    “Välkommen” is singular, not sure if you want to address Sweden as a single unit or collective (and even if you see Sweden as grammatically singular, you might want the plural “Välkomna” as Swedish is also an official language in Finland!).

    And speaking from my own perspective, the two illiberal members of NATO turns out to be quite a stumbling block for the coalition. But I was also personally a bit wary over the clear display of anti-democratic tendencies in a major faction of American politics

  6. I think that Wikipedia image/article on countries that have given aid to Ukraine is somewhere between misleading and wrong. Taking Sudan, for example, the article cites that Sudanese mortar bombs and possibly artillery shells have ended up in Ukrainian hands. It also suggests that those munitions were likely purchased by a 3rd country. The articles relied upon to support the claim that Sudan’s supplied weapons to Ukraine say that Sudan has been willing to let flights carrying weapons from other countries transit through their airports, which has made Russia a bit more angry with them, but that’s still pretty different than saying that Sudan has provided military aid or supports Ukraine over Russia in this conflict.
    Azerbaijan is likewise listed as supplying weapons, but the sources used to support that explicitly say that while munitions made in the country have gone to Ukraine the government of Azerbaijan is decidedly not involved in or supportive of this. By the logic used to include them, you might as well include Iran and Russia as suppliers of arms to Ukraine!

    1. Yes. Pakistan actually does have pre-existing military ties with Ukraine that go back to the 1990s, but with Jordan and Sudan it seems pretty likely to me that their willingness to supply weapons to Ukraine is largely because the US is willing to pay them money to do it and Russia isn’t willing to punish them for it in a way that outweighs the financial benefits that the US is willing to offer. Morocco is another example, they pretty clearly gave T-72s to the Czechs to be modernized and sent to Ukraine in exchange for the US offering Abrams (and, via Israel, Merkavas) as replacements, but they officially deny this.

      No doubt there are other countries that have made these sorts of under-the-table deals. The fact sheet on US military aid to Ukraine ( includes “100,000 rounds of 125mm tank ammunition”, a caliber of ammunition that is only used by derivatives of the T-64 and a few Chinese tanks. I highly doubt that the US just happened to have 100k Soviet/Russian-caliber tank shells lying around, no doubt that they bought those shells under-the-table from other countries that aren’t willing to publicly admit to supplying weapons to Ukraine.

  7. Given that a lot of this coalition is built on institutions at the inter-national, national, and sub-national levels, how do we handle the loss of faith and trust in institutions that we see in the United States? This order has emerged despite a clear loss of public trust in government at almost at the same time as it has arisen:

    Is there a point where our internal petty squabbles (as you describe them) be come corrosive enough to the perception of the system that real damage is caused? If this is a risk, what actions can Americans and the United States take to push back against this corrosion?

  8. I was about to point out, acerbically, that “Guyana” must surely be a typo. Historically they’ve been one of the poorest countries in South America (though they’re only South American geographically, in terms of culturally they’re a Caribbean country).

    Then I looked it up to double check it and it turns out that, yes, Guyana’s per capita GDP right now is something on the order of $60k.

    Apparently they discovered oil in the last decade, and their GDP/capita increased by 7.5-fold (!) in the last 10 years.

    That being said, until very recently they were not at all “rich” or even really middle income. They were also a socialist country under Forbes Burnham during the Cold War, and there’s probably some residual coldness towards the United States that’s a legacy of that era.

  9. I would argue that leadership of the status-quo coalition is in some ways a white elephant. According to the World Bank, the USA’s military spending as a fraction of GDP is 59% larger than the United Kingdom’s and 84% larger than France’s. Greece spends a larger fraction (and so does Israel if you count it) but most coalition members spend less than half of what the USA does.

    I’m not claiming that the costs of leadership for the USA are greater than the benefits (I would guess that they are not) but these costs are certainly something any other would-be leaders must consider, especially since a smaller country would have to spend a much larger fraction of its GDP in order to reach the same level of military power.

    1. On a similar note, the dollar as a global reserve currency is also not an unmitigated positive for the US- in order for the yuan or the euro to take over the dollar’s role in global markets, China or the Eurozone would have to be willing to absorb a lot more net international capital inflows, which would mesh poorly with the way China and Germany’s economies are heavily built around trade surpluses.

      (TBH I’m not very confident in my ability to convey this argument clearly- Michael Pettis might be a better source for anyone who wants more detail.)

      1. I enjoy reading Michael Pettis’s explainers, and I feel you have provided a good summary.

    2. I’m reminded of some of Dr. Devereaux’s posts on kingship.

      Being the king is not an unalloyed benefit. There are a lot of expenses associated with it. Kingship is something you have to perform, not jut something you are.

      And yet there are plenty of people throughout history who have concluded that it is good to be the king, and being deposed usually isn’t a pleasant experience for the monarch in question.

  10. Typo hunt:

    “treat allies of the United States”

    “Every state as conflict within it – conflicting visions of how the state ought to be run and so on.”

    “but theses are, in a sense free-but-not-rich countries,”

    “status quo as ameniable as the current”

  11. I’d also question why you think Jordan is “very much not in the [status quo] coalition”. While Jordan is definitely not a liberal democracy, they’ve long been an important US ally in the region and probably the strongest supporter of the local status quo. They have treaties with Israel precisely in support of this. They don’t have the biggest global voice, but I’d rate them as being more pro-international status quo than say Saudi Arabia, which I’d also argue is a critical part of that status quo even if they’re not as much an active maintainer of it.

  12. I fee like there’s something missing from your analysis of the role of “freedom” in 21st century geopolitics. Sure, the relative friendliness of both Hungary and Turkey with Russia is conspicuous, but also a bit puzzling IMHO. What do they stand to gain from undermining the principle that territorial expansion via conquest is not allowed? I am also not convinced the US foreign policy establishment actually cares that much about whether countries whether other countries are democracies, nor do they have much reason to from a neo-realist perspective, since lots of oppressive regimes seem to do a pretty good job of not doing anything to threaten free trade or create massive refugee flows.

    1. Turn it around. The EU and US probably disapprove much more of the current Hungarian government than, for example, of the current Czech government. So the Hungarian government is probably a lot more likely than the Czech, to go looking for allies against the EU and US.

    2. What Hungary gains is corruption. Orbán works on the principle of threatening to shut down EU governance through exercising the liberum veto unless the EU yeets more money toward Hungary, which both sides know will enrich his cronies; an old friend of his became the richest person in the country. The far right ideology is a tool of legitimization: see, I’m not just asking for money, I’m doing this for the principle of Hungarian nationhood and purging socialist influence in the country!

      Hungary has little to lose from breaking international norms, because it’s not threatened by anyone. It’s far from Russia. Western Europe is so nonthreatening that somehow an order of 44 Leopard 2s for Hungary is being fulfilled rather than canceled and redirected to Ukraine. Notably, the European countries that are threatened – Poland, the Baltics, and of course Ukraine – don’t do this. The Baltics are happily neoliberal, even though on matters like Holocaust revisionism and general animus, Lithuania isn’t any better than Hungary.

      1. “Orbán works on the principle of threatening to shut down EU governance through exercising the liberum veto unless the EU yeets more money toward Hungary”

        Being openly pro-Russian to get money out of the EU sounds singularly self-defeating.

        1. He’s not getting money out of the EU through being pro-Russian; he’s getting money out of the EU through threatening to veto actions that require unanimous EU consent, like some of the sanctions on Russia; he likewise is refusing to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership (he and Erdoğan both like not being the last holdout, because the US can actually pressure one holdout better than it can two). The pro-Russian stance is because Russia (and China) will invest in corrupt deals in Hungary whereas EU institutions won’t, hence the realignment away from Soros-funded institutions and toward Fudan.

        2. My theory:

          To an extent, it’s the kind of “balancing” behavior discussed elsewhere in this article (and earlier in the series on the game Victoria 2). Hungary isn’t necessarily hoping Russia will ‘win’ and triumph over the EU/NATO/status-quo-coalition (SQC, henceforth) as a whole. But they think they have something to gain by slowing down the SQC a bit, taking them down a peg, and indirectly helping the Russians gets them that.

          And heck, even if the Russians won in Ukraine, they can’t even get to Hungary directly without overrunning multiple rows of Eastern European nations. Given how much trouble Russia’s having even conquering Ukraine (let alone occupying it) and that some of the countries in the next row have NATO nuclear security guarantees, any scenario where Russia pushes that far west is going to take quite a while. Probably long enough that Viktor Orban will be dead or out of politics and it won’t be his problem anymore.

          But Hungary is more valuable as an indispensable player whose lack of cooperation could undermine NATO’s defensive posture than as one more taken-for-granted alloy slouching along quietly in the background.

          Meanwhile, Turkey is merrily playing both sides, selling arms to Ukraine but undermining Sweden and Finland’s entry to NATO, but taking some degree of care. On the other hand, they have more value as an anti-Russian ally than Hungary does, so if they somehow miscalculate and their shenanigans lead to Ukraine falling, Turkey becomes if anything MORE valuable to NATO and the SQC in the long run.

          1. In the case of Hungary, the geopolitical posturing is backfiring. Orbán desperately needs not to be the last holdout; even organizations with formal unanimity requirements, like the EU and NATO, have ways of coercing a lone holdout – evidently, once Erdoğan relented on Finnish NATO membership, Hungary’s opposition vanished.

            And by being so openly Putinist, Orbán is squandering goodwill in Poland, which previously was his main ally against the EU’s demands. With the entirety of Poland mad at him for not supporting Ukraine, the EU was able to tighten the screws and deprive him of funding under rule of law conditionality.

            (Something I wish were better-known is that geopolitical actors constantly make exploitable errors; the country I live in, as I mentioned in another thread below, managed to start two wars that led to the destruction of the state.)

      2. “What Hungary gains is corruption.”

        As Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen has said, corruption is the number one export of Russia.

  13. >Because the United States isn’t the king or general of the status quo coalition, it’s the ‘team captain.’ If it proves to be a bad team captain, the team may well choose a new captain, or disband altogether, with catastrophic implications for American interests.

    This is why IMO the coalition is likely to “go away” if US primacy is sufficiently eroded, i.e. in a great power war. In terms of relative power, US is both king and captain, the same way Lebron, aka KingJames is both captain and disproportionately indispensable player/power, whose absence will not be trivially replaceable, and hence the weakest (yet most durable) chain in the link. Because the US is so essential to upholding the status quo, sufficiently undermining the US will naturally undermine the status quo coalition, who may try to imitate what remains, but is unlikely to replicate.

    The coalition may be relatively impervious to diplomatic splitting from outside the bloc. But what happens post a great powers war when the coalition lose access to US weapons that they increasingly integrate into (as their indigenous defense industries languish), lose access to US tech or finance etc. because the various factories and data warehouses are cinders, lose access to US energy because the refineries and LNG vessels are gone. This is why PRC isn’t concerned with allies (never the point of BRI) but breaking the King’s ankles if the time comes. Note PRC is increasingly breadcrumbing pursuit of prompt global strike – conventional capabilities to disrupt CONUS serenity that underpins US ability to serve as foundation of coalition. PRC is building ankle breakers. And to follow the sports analogy, a war is taking competition outside the regulations of the arena, it’s a bum fight where each side tries to ensure the other cannot play again. Strategically to topple the incumbent, sometimes one needs to flip the board in a bum fight and hope they recover faster. Mind you PRC will also have her ankles broken in this scenario, but at the end of the day, the King by virtue of having it all, also has the most to lose, and in turn cause his team to lose as well.

    Right now it seems the US is willing (at least in public messaging) to participate in a bum fight with PRC over TW that the US coalition knows PRC will fight over and at least a few think it might not be worth it. Contrary to most western analysis, I think PRC understands perfectly well that hegemons (especially outside ones operating in your backyard) aren’t unseated via diplomacy but military intervention to reduce/eliminate hegemon ability to contribute or hold together an alliance/coalition/empire at all.

    1. “This is why PRC isn’t concerned with allies (never the point of BRI) but breaking the King’s ankles if the time comes.”

      It’s on the wrong continent to do that. And has no allies or basing rights on the right continent.

      1. Basically. Apart from token basing in cambodia, djibouti, or other small replenishment expansions, nothing on the scale of forward deploy significant assets like US. Geopolitically impossible to dismantle US basing rights. Much more prudent to disrupt/destroy the exquisit hardware US invested and locked into due to those bases. Hence PRC pouring so much into advanced rocketry -don’t need to negotiate difficult supply chains for complicated CSGs or aerial tanking that requires decades more of institution and alliance building. Simply spam sufficiently advanced missiles to prosecute war from within mainland. IMO US sees the trend as well, investing heavily in B21s that can replicate long term strike directly from CONUS while navy continues to divest.

    2. In the current situation, the EU would take over as team captain if the US were to quit or be ejected for whatever reason. The coalition would be much weaker, due to the loss of its by-far-strongest member and less effectual, due to the EU’s ponderous workings. But I think the coalition would still be a going concern.

    3. I don’t think China’s strategic logic is directly along these lines.

      The US is a nuclear power. A Sino-American war in which China starts aggressively dismantling the entire US military posture in the Pacific, let alone launching missiles (even conventional-tipped missiles) across the Pacific to hit America from the Chinese mainland, is very likely to go nuclear, at which point both sides lose hard, no question about it, and whoever emerges from the fallout-dusted world as the pre-eminent power, it won’t be the US or China.

      I think what China is doing is trying to make sure it has the means to make the US contemplate a conventional war over something in the western Pacific close to China and think “do I really want to start this.” Ideally, from their perspective, the US reaches a position where it cannot continue to intervene meaningfully in countries very close to China in any great confidence. Where the US has to either fight a conventional war it will probably lose, or a nuclear war it will definitely lose even if China loses it harder.

      The point isn’t to build up for some kind of notional “ankle-breaking” attack that destroys US hegemony. It’s to build up to a point where they can nullify that hegemony in their immediate backyard. To where the US goes from being “in charge of the world” to being “in charge of everywhere except China’s sphere of influence; we don’t go there.”

      1. The TLDR is when your adversary can break your ankle, it’s not enough to just chip a nail. Especially if you want to deter fighting or negotiate terms in the first place.

        PRC is a nuclear power, yet that does not stop US war planners from messaging over various blockade or mainland attack scenarios in TW contingency. Fundamentally, we’re both talking about the PRC version of integrated deterrence, but the reality is, to fully deter the US, it’s not sufficient to only deter regionally, but to match/create mutual homeland deterrence/vulnerability. Because the US may well be willing to gamble 7th fleet in TW, but much less likely to sacrifice CONUS serenity. Something the US never had to risk since the revolutionary war. Hence it’s in PRC strategic interest to match conventional homeland escalation risk, aka existential stakes, the same way US publicly message PRC war over TW will lead to collapse of CCP/PRC, PRC strategists want to also message US intervention in TW will lead to collapse of US and American hegemony. Want to blockade PRC energy or calorie imports? Well no amount of hard built American shale/oil autarky and blessed agri resources will survive having US refineries (hence energy and agri inputs) disrupted. The most important PRC deterrence messaging in the future will be, fortress america is no more.

        Ultimately credible deterrence is symmetrical (if not superior) deterrence, and IMO CONUS strikes are on the cards as long as PRC mainland strikes are. Which they will be due to the US merely possessing and continuing to double down on global projection capabilities. Keep in mind up until now, US adversaries couldn’t hit conus not because they wouldn’t (apart from poor efforts like Fugo balloons / 911), but they technically couldn’t, at scale that matters. Until sufficiently advanced rocketry which PRC is pouring an inordinate amount of resources into. Also keep in mind the US nuke posture is launch on confirmation not launch on warning, second strike / triad exists for a reason. And there’s nothing that assures PRC that US short/medium range ordnance aren’t nuclear tipped. Entire ICBMs will automatically trigger nuclear war is exceptionalist propaganda considering US first tests of their own conventional prompt strike used ICBMs. When adversaries can threaten CONUS at scale, US will recalibrate strategic considerations accordingly, as have every US adversary in history when carriers sail past their shores.

        Which circles back to “nullifying” US in PRC backyard which goes well beyond TW, but art5 tier security partners like JP/SKR/PH. That’s PRC’s long term / ultimate strategic goal. In fact one of the worst case scenarios for PRC long term is relatively drama free reunification with TW where US security architecture in east Asian remains, if not have carte blanche to expand because many in the region simply would not commit to US hedging with TW damocles on the table. Once the TW dilemma is gone, US posture in east Asia could paradoxically improve. Hence it’s not enough for PRC to merely make US forward staging in IndoPac untenable, it’s better to come at the king and not miss by building global strike capabilities to show US cannot possibly fulfill security guarantee roles against PRC when their CSGs can be sunk not just in Yokosuka, but also Norfolk. To remind potential US hedgers there won’t be unlimited, undisruptable aid coming from CONUS by breaking what makes US military primacy possible in the first place – CONUS serenity.

        1. To try and cut through the fog here, what I’m claiming is NOT:

          “I think China is only interested in short/medium range weapons and in targeting things no farther away than the Western Pacific.”

          What I’m claiming is:

          “I think China’s military buildup is, strategically speaking, not aimed at a plan to one day incapacitate the United States with some kind of “ankle-breaking” attack so that China will be powerful and triumphant in the aftermath.”

          The second statement can be true even if China is building up long-range weapons capable of inflicting crippling infrastructure damage on the continental United States. My point is that insofar as China is building up these capabilities, the intent is to have a reliable, strong ability to deter the US, not to plot to supplant the US in the international order by winning a war China started.

          Now, maybe you agree with that. I’m not saying you don’t agree. But that’s what I was trying to get at earlier.

          1. Yes we are in agreement that ability to threaten CONUS is primarily in service of deterrence in PRC’s backyard.

            > Fundamentally, we’re both talking about the PRC version of integrated deterrence.

            My clarification was that ability to threaten CONUS is essential, not just supplemental to PRC “integrated deterrence” – PRC limiting military to regional military primacy is not sufficient.

        2. “much less likely to sacrifice CONUS serenity. Something the US never had to risk since the revolutionary war.”

          Hey, don’t forget about the War of 1812.

  14. Fascinating article as usual!

    It reminded me of something I was thinking about lately. I’ve been reading “The Last Assassin” and thinking about the Roman Revolution. Most of the major players (e.g. Mark Antony, Cassius, Julius Caesar) seem to have operated by moving away from Rome to the provinces to gather wealth, amass allies, before returning to Rome to try to take over.

    So why didn’t Rome break up into a new version of the Hellenistic Kingdoms? If you get power from the provinces, why not just stay ruler of a province? The Hellenistic Kingdoms were semi-stable for ages without ever becoming a single polity. Instead Octavian just gradually won and reestablished unified Roman rule.

    I feel like there’s a lot of stuff we don’t understand about how multipolar worlds and worlds with a single hegemon can be stable, and then unstable.

    1. So why didn’t Rome break up into a new version of the Hellenistic Kingdoms? If you get power from the provinces, why not just stay ruler of a province? The Hellenistic Kingdoms were semi-stable for ages without ever becoming a single polity. Instead Octavian just gradually won and reestablished unified Roman rule.

      Antony was possibly trying to do something like that before Octavian declared war on him. But in general, I’d say the reason was that Rome was still an oversized city-state at this point — politics, culture, social life, and religion were all centred on the city itself, and foreigners were looked on as decidedly second-rate (marriages between Romans and non-Romans weren’t legally recognised, for example). From the perspective of most Romans, then, living as a warlord in the provinces would be seen as a sign of failure, a self-imposed exile far from the beating heart of Roman civilisation — and anybody ambitious enough to try and set up their own power-base outside the Senate and People would likely also be ambitious enough to want a successful life as their society conceptualised it.

    2. Italy had already achieved breakout. A substantial part of the civil wars is a divided legitimacy: Sulla marched on Rome with consular authority, Cinna did so too, Sulla came back disparaging the legitimacy of the existing regime, Caesar marched south ostensibly to defend the tribunes, etc. See Morstein-Marx “Consular appeals to the army” (2011).

      You can only take Italy, where the manpower is, if you can convince the peninsula your cause is just enough to stop active opposition. If you cannot do so and sit as a rebel in your province, Italy will come to you (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Macedonian, Antiochene, 1st, 2nd, 3rd Mithridatic, every attempt to hold the East against Italy except Sulla, etc).

      It also doesn’t feel like you can just have an army sitting around in the East as a Roman general during a civil war in this period. The purpose of the army must be, at least ostensibly, to free or save the republic from the oppression of a faction. Sitting in the East does no such thing.

  15. In a preindustrial world, whoever ruled in Rome was likely to want to conquer its neighbours, for reasons discussed above. And anyone who ruled a single province was likely to be defeated by anyone who ruled the rest of the Mediterranean basin.

  16. As it says at the end of a Disco Elysium quest:

    “Centrism isn’t change — not even incremental change. It is *control*. Over yourself and the world. Exercise it. Look up at the sky, at the dark shapes of Coalition airships hanging there. Ask yourself: is there something sinister in moralism? And then answer: no. God is in his heaven. Everything is normal on Earth.”

  17. Two caveats to the thesis of “industrialization decreases the net returns to war”, which are implicit in the post but still worth spelling out:

    One, in an industrialized world the best known way to turn a revisionist country into a status-quo country– with all the economic and soft-power benefits that implies– is for the Team Captain to trounce it in a war and occupy it. The transformation of Germany, Japan, and South Korea into stable economic powerhouses and staunch US allies is quite a striking pattern. You might also count Panama and/or post-Iron-Curtain Eastern Europe there if your definitions of war and occupation are sufficiently expansive. The US invasion of Iraq was obviously influenced by this observation and though it didn’t bear fruit in the short term I suspect we may start to see positive effects in the next few decades.

    Two, low net returns to war are predicated on having a war in the first place, and hence on industrial states having the military capacity and will to put up a fight when invaded. Russia did pretty well for itself Little-Green-Men-ing the Crimea.

    1. On the last, the seizure of Crimea looks much less well-thought-out in hindsight given the current war. If Crimea was all Putin wanted, it was a great success. But taking it also prompted Ukraine to build up significantly more military strength, to the point that leaving them be in 2014 would probably have left them much more vulnerable to a later attack.

    2. “The transformation of Germany, Japan, and South Korea into stable economic powerhouses and staunch US allies is quite a striking pattern. You might also count Panama and/or post-Iron-Curtain Eastern Europe there if your definitions of war and occupation are sufficiently expansive.”

      In every one of those cases there was a “near enemy” that the US could serve as a counterweight against. In the cases of Japan and South Korea that “near enemy” is still there. Likewise for post-Iron-Curtain Eastern Europe, which was never invaded by the US except for Serbia, which is not a member of NATO, hasn’t sanctioned Russia, etc.

      Under Bret’s definition, basically countries that have participated in sanctions against Russia, Panama isn’t a part of it. Neither is Grenada, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. I don’t think the important variable here is “war and occupation.”

      “Russia did pretty well for itself Little-Green-Men-ing the Crimea.”

      Crimea has been a large economic drain on Moscow since 2014 because few countries were willing to send ships to Sevastopol to trade, and politically Putin had little choice but to give Crimean residents a standard of living comparable to mainland Russia, resulting in massive economic subsidies from Moscow to prop it up. An increasingly severe shortage of freshwater due to Ukraine damming up the North Crimean Canal only added to these problems.

      So even in this case where a piece of foreign territory fell with effectively zero resistance, all that Russia got out of it was an opportunity to buy some militarily important territory at a considerable economic cost.

      1. How do you figure the new bridge over the Crimean Bosporus (I forgot the current name of the straight which leads to the Sea of Azov) will pay for itself? Or, will it?

        1. Kerch Strait. And no, the bridge never paid for itself, at most it somewhat reduced the economic burden of the subsidies to Crimea by making it easier to move goods and people between the peninsula and mainland Russia.

      2. Germany, Japan, and Korea are also different because they already had history as strong states. Centuries-deep history for Japan and Korea, not so deep for Germany but still, unified Germany had been a pretty effective state for decades. The US didn’t really have to nation-build, there was already strong national identity; we just influenced the redirection of rebuilding. I’m not sure we even did that much in the case of South Korea.

        Iraq and Afghanistan are more of “cats in a sack”, especially with the US’s reliable incompetence in anything like actual nation building.

        1. AIUI, South Korea was rather autocratic for a notionally democratic nation for most of the Cold War. Wikipedia counts six republics, each of which ended with some sort of constitutional crisis, even if the constitution used now was written back in 1948. ( Also, the legislature removed a president for corruption in response to protests in the streets as recently as 2017.

          1. “Rather autocratic” is putting it fairly gently: South Korea was a ruthless military dictatorship, not too different from the ones the US propped up in Latin America, until fairly late.

            Interestingly, it was also *poor* until fairly late. (even trailing behind North Korea for a fairly long while)

            (it’s been pointed out that, like all the communist states, North Korea wasn’t good economically but the current “absolute shitshow” is state of North Korea is largel a post-Soviet collapse thing, though at that point the South had already eclipsed them significantly)

  18. I think you’re missing how balancing works in Asia. The pro-US behavior of countries in Southeast Asia is not a rejection of balancing, but a way to bring in a distant power that can’t meaningfully colonize them to balance against a closer-in power that can. Vietnam has territorial disputes with China; the US is not going to claim those islands for itself ever, so might as well ally with it to balance against China.

    This also explains India’s behavior. India has been remarkably tepid in supporting the US position against China, and has not supported Ukraine at all; the term “Indo-Pacific” in US national security parlance is a rhetorical trope, changed from the traditional “Pacific” to entice India to join, and so far it hasn’t really bitten. People in India will openly tell Western foreign policy writers that India has no intention of being a second-rate power; India has global superpower pretensions, and this means not ever showing subordination to the US (same as France when it pulled out of the NATO command structure). Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia have no such pretensions.

    The main neo-realist explanation of the Cold War in Europe is similar – the countries of Western Europe allied with faraway America against the local threat that was the USSR; it’s the constructivist or idealist theory that points out the shared regime type between the US and capitalist Western Europe as the basis of NATO.

    (From a constructivist perspective, there’s so much anti-Chinese racism in Southeast Asia that alignment with China isn’t really an option. The one country in Southeast Asia that doesn’t have this – Singapore, where the Chinese are the dominant majority – is also the one with the most pro-PRC popular sentiment.)

    1. You seem to be saying that it is all local factors, and pure coincidence that the local factors in every single region of the world lead to people allying with the US in preference to China. That’s a lot of coincidences.

      1. I was writing my main reply when Alon Levy posted theirs, but I think we make similar points. I don’t wish to put words in Alon’s mouth, but I think the common factor in Asia and Oceania is that China is close and the USA is far away.

      2. Not in every single region – just in Asia-Pacific, and historically in Europe. In Africa and Latin America, with no such threat, people aren’t actually aligning with the US. Lula likes poking the US in the eye and has been signal-boosting Putin’s international stance on Ukraine.

        (Note that in Europe, when the US seems hostile or unreliable, as it was during the Iraq War and again under Trump, the instinct is to eurofederate: Macron spent the Trump years pushing for an EU army – but once the Ukraine war started and the US proved itself to be reliable, elite sentiment in favor of this evaporated, even as popular support of an EU army has risen.)

    2. India is not pro-Ukraine, but Indian foreign policy does not match what would be expected from a ‘balancing’ strategy. India may be less enthusiastic about some aspects of the status quo than Western European nations, but India isn’t trying to change it, nor is India trying to undermine the US and allies.

      India isn’t sanctioning Russia, because they can’t afford to. They are however buying Russian oil at a massive discount price which isn’t exactly being friendly and supportive. And India aren’t supplying Russia with weapons as are Iran and North Korea. Western nations are generally OK with this.

      India in the 21st C is aligning itself with the Western military powers, not China or Russia. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is US-Australia-Japan-India and everyone knows that it’s aimed at the PRC. As I write this the USA and India just agreed on “a vision of the United States and India as among the closest partners in the world” establishing a wide range economic, scientific, and military links.

      I’m sure there are many Indians who are not entirely happy or actively opposed to such ties with the US and western allies. But the status quo is better than the alternative of having the PRC club your soldiers to death in border incidents.

      1. This may be me being a Brit and seeing what I want to see out of it, but India looks like it’s neutral, but favouring the EU at the moment. This is mostly based on Perun’s videos, with India buying cheap oil from Russia, then selling it to Europe at standard rates.

        I don’t know if India is willing or capable of becoming a power on the level of America, but I don’t think it sees itself as needing to oppose the US either. And China being on its border with regular skirmishes makes the US a natural ally in the region.

      2. India’s role in the sanctions regime is a bit more revealing than you let on — among other things, since the start of war they’ve stepped up not just their imports of crude oil from Russia but also their exports of refined oil to Europe, which if we’re being real, ultimately amounts to providing a mechanism for Europe to continue relying on Russian fossil fuels and financing the Russian war effort, only with an extra “hypocrisy tax” to intermediary countries like India in exchange for their money-refining, er, I mean fuel-laundering services.

        The premise that this sort of behavior doesn’t constitute “sanctions-busting” seems to me to resemble the Nixonian dictum on presidential illegality, in the sense of embracing pragmatic hypocrisy as a way to preserve the status quo (in this case, European economic viability premised for the past half-century or so on access to affordable Russian energy) from the potentially disruptive effects of actually taking one’s avowed standards and principles seriously.

        1. You are missing the point of Dr Devereaux’s article: why **isn’t** India doing more sanction busting? From the history of European Westphalian style states and the larger industrialised world in the 20th C, India “should” be trying to build up its own power and that of competitors to the USA and the status quo coalition, because that would enhance India’s own opportunities for wealth and expansion.
          Instead, India is helping the status quo coalition and becoming increasingly linked into the Western economies and militaries.

          As for the oil imports, politics is the art of the possible. The EU can’t dictate to India that they must stop buying Russian oil, India does not (yet) have the alternative energy sources that Europe does. It would just piss India off. Instead we have India (and China) buying Russian oil at approximately half the pre-war price. Yes it’s financing the Russian war effort, but it is not nearly as much money as Russia needs. India is making the real profit, not Russia. A good enough outcome, we live in an imperfect world.

          And if some EU countries are buying refined oil from India, Ukraine is neither an EU member nor a NATO member. European countries have made a massive and expensive effort to restructure their energy imports in the past year or two, but these things take time. If some EU governments decide that asking their own citizens to freeze and their own transport networks to grind to a halt on behalf of Ukraine would be too much, again we live in an imperfect world.

          For an example of what India could be doing but isn’t, even before the war started India had almost twice as many T-90 main battle tanks as Russia did. I’m fairly sure the Russian army would not be pulling T-62 tanks out of storage if they could be buying T-90s from India.

    3. An important part of the calculation for SE Asian countries is that the US isn’t just far away; it doesn’t try to take other countries’ land anymore, period. The US doesn’t claim all waters up to just offshore Columbia, which would be a reasonable analogue to China, which is *actually* claiming everything up to a few miles from Borneo. Notably the US has decent relations with almost all counties in Central America and the Caribbean in spite of some really heinous acts in the past.

    4. I think the more clear explanation here is that India’s tepidness is still a reluctant compliance with the status quo. This makes complete sense as a strategy for India, because Indian leadership believes (with a fair amount of reason) that India is only going to continue to grow stronger over the next several decades, and so it benefits India in the present for the current status quo to exist, because that status quo is clearly working for their interests. The reluctance to actually commit to the SQC also makes sense in this framework, because India both has domestic political reasons to focus on its diplomatic independence and the respect given to it by other nations, and because India doesn’t stand to gain much from active commitment to the coalition when it can achieve the same outcome for itself by just not doing so. Though India might one day become a revisionist power, currently it seems prudent to take advantage of the current system as much as possible. After all, challenging hegemony will only be easier tomorrow.

      1. +1000. I think this here is exactly right. I have very little liking for the current Indian government (or for that matter, for the last few Congress governments), but I think they’re making the correct decision that, for right now, they need to focus on economic growth (and on maintaining sovereign independence), and not on making bids to be a revisionist power. As you say, a couple decades from now India will be richer and more powerful than it is today, and challenging US hegemony will only be easier.

    5. There’s so much anti-Chinese racism in Southeast Asia that alignment with China isn’t really an option. The one country in Southeast Asia that doesn’t have this – Singapore, where the Chinese are the dominant majority – is also the one with the most pro-PRC popular sentiment.)

      This assertion may be out of date. As of last year, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia all had significantly more pro-PRC sentiment than Singapore.

      India has global superpower pretensions, and this means not ever showing subordination to the US (same as France when it pulled out of the NATO command structure)

      France rejoined the NATO integrated military command structure fourteen years ago.

      1. Interesting survey results. Not all countries in Southeast Asia were surveyed but it suggests that a slight majority of people in the region like China more than not, though they like the US and EU more, and if pressed would pick the US over China. So yeah, it sounds like typical balance of power politics pitting one great power over another.

  19. I mean the allies we got via two world wars after being the ringer and the supply guarantor also late comer and having no peer enemies anywhere close to us 2 oceans in-between us and any possible competitor once we stopped circling around Britain/Canada thing.

    Along with the new threat of a Russia built up infrastructure threat to Europe over the centuries after being a bit of the slow dog of Europe politics is fun dynamics. but like, mostly the whole all the European Empires committing collective suicide twice against each other.

    Then being good staging grounds if we ever got into fight with communists (Europe against Russia, Japan and Korea against China/Asia fights) and hey if we do a marshal plan to get you back on your feet. Also the everyone wanting to beat up China cause good trade deals thing. another century of humiliation being the dream everyone has but no one mentions but more managed and all that. the want you to be a prosperous trade partner but not wanting you strong enough to get uppity.
    So I will buy the richness thing certainly, but the freedom thing is a bit quant. bit of a our allies were mostly former empires and empire citizens thing.

    I think a big thing is and was the sheer distance? most dont have to worry about America trying to take a land claim for its own right, at best a half assed puppet state/regime change overthrow supporter thing that being far away is a bitch and a half to manage, not in the least the whole every 4 years you might get an about face, and at best 8 years a bit of a regime change. So in that bit America can be a mite fickle that every now and then punches itself in its face cause in some places you can just wait them out, which is not something a East European country could hope for if Russia got territorial Hungry.

    Although who knows, just for fun some time in the future America getting hungry and wanting new land from Mexico to make a few more states out of its corpse could be a nice shake up. Fun Sci-Fy alt nonsense idea.

    still anyway thank you for this content I have always enjoyed your musing and discussions immensely. I seem to have gone… bitterish places there? or just who cares on pretty names thing the states interest and concerns underneath them all.

    that bit on war is not profitable anymore against anyone near a peer enemy was a very nice touch that I think undermines everything else who cares to conquer when you can just buy them out.

    1. Also aspiring countries to lead — already rich but o so much no longer free, such as Florida and Texas.

    2. “Distance” isn’t keeping the rest of the world safe from the US. European powers colonized most of the world hundreds of years ago, and the modern US clearly has the ability to project power at similar distances (see iraq and afghanistan for recent examples). If we as a country wanted to go full imperialist, we clearly could, if we ignore potential balancing behaviors on the part of other major powers. However, we simply don’t want to, and most of our allies are equally uninterested in imperialism.

      1. I wouldn’t use Afghanistan as an example of successful long-distance power projection.

        Many of the early imperial conquests were carried out by states with gunpowder and steel against adversaries that lacked such weapons. The conquest of India involved picking up the pieces of a collapsing Mughal Empire (when the English East India Company launched an expedition against the more-united Mughals under Aurangzeb in the 1680s, they failed). Later imperial expansion involved industrialized states conquering pre-industrial societies.

        The world has changed now. Imperialism becomes much more difficult in the age of the AK-47.

        1. The US definitely succeeded at shredding the existing states and installing the regime they wanted, and keeping it in power for quite a while. The invasion of Afghanistan failed to create a stable local government, but while US support lasted it retained the ability to carry out state functions over most of the country.

          1. In general, the point of imperialism is to make yourself better off, not to make someone else worse off. If your imperialism isn’t making you better off, you should stop doing it.

            As Putin’s advisors have clearly failed to point out to him.

        2. The issue is that states don’t really gain long-term economic benefit from formal imperialism. They didn’t in the 19th century, either, but at the time the people in charge were not the makers but rather the idle landlords, who liked conquest for the prestige.

          A couple posts ago, Bret brought up the issue of Venezuela. It has no way to defend itself from the US; its navy is such a meme that it loses fights against unarmed commercial ships. And yet, the US doesn’t invade, install Guaidó as a puppet leader, and seize the oil. This isn’t out of domestic politics – the removal of Maduro would be a crowd pleaser for whichever party was in power at the time.

          Rather, it’s that administering a foreign country is a giant headache. Look at how unpopular just about every decision the US made while administering Iraq was. Formal rule means taking responsibility, and that’s both hard and risky; when you’re so dominant the biggest alternative is scared of invading a country of 24 million 150 km from its territory and 9,500 km from yours, why would you ever take risks like this?

          1. One point of note is that *states* don’t neccessarily gain much from imperialism, the elites that *run* these states do (at least under, for said elites, ideal circumstances) Especially if they can offload the costs onto the taxpayers and reap the benefits privately.

          2. …sort of. The landowners of Britain weren’t gaining much from imperialism, as an economic class. They weren’t exporting food there – to the contrary, Britain was importing food and exporting manufactures, and the people in questions hated the factories. A lazy, inbred aristocracy is not a rational actor. At least they survived and got to keep their money; their counterparts in Germany went on a pair of adventures that led to the destruction of the state and the seizure of their estates by the communists.

          3. …sort of. The landowners of Britain weren’t gaining much from imperialism, as an economic class. They weren’t exporting food there – to the contrary, Britain was importing food and exporting manufactures, and the people in questions hated the factories. A lazy, inbred aristocracy is not a rational actor. At least they survived and got to keep their money; their counterparts in Germany went on a pair of adventures that led to the destruction of the state and the seizure of their estates by the communists.

            The landed aristocracy became progressively less important in Brtiain over the course of the 19th century, so “irrational aristocrats pushing imperial expansion against their best interests” isn’t an accurate model for British imperialism. (And if it were, it would hardly make sense to dismiss them as “lazy and inbred” at a time when they were building literally the biggest empire in world history.)

            As for the case of Germany, whilst your point might be defensible in the case of WW1, the Nazis were not a party of the landed aristocracy, nor did most of their senior officials come from such a background.

          4. I don’t think anyone (except maybe Italy) of the major powers saw WWI as primarily an imperialist war, but rather all belligerents saw it as primarily a defensive (or “defense of their existing spheres of influence”) conflict. Obviously they expected to tear chunks out of their opponents if they won, but that was never the objective. (which doesen’t mean imperialist comeptition wasn’t part of the background soup of tension)

            “The landowners of Britain weren’t gaining much from imperialism, as an economic class.”

            Sure they were, they got jobs in the colonial service, fancy titles, and (depending on thier inclinations) opportunities to make fortunes. Of course many of them ended up dying from malaria and such, but that’s a different thing.

          5. As has been pointed out by others in this thread, I think the dismissal of imperialism as purely a negative for the states engaging in it doesn’t capture the full picture, and it almost seems to contradict with the actions actually taken by historical actors. Even if from a purely neorealist perspective, where the State is immune to internal pressures, imperialism doesn’t make sense, the key to understanding why it happened is that it did benefit key actors within Atlantic societies, from the shareholders in the companies that actually managed the extractions to the officials that got to own estates in far-flung colonies to the industrialists importing cheap resources to fuel their factories, in turn transforming Atlantic societies in ways that benefitted a great many people in those societies. Old-style imperialism clearly worked, and the modern system of neo-colonialism is functionally a continuation of the same key economic interactions, adjusted to fit with both modern international norms and to outsource a lot of the difficult parts to local power-brokers (though this also happened during the age of traditional imperialism).

          6. “it as primarily a defensive”

            So the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia was “defensive”. Let’s remind the demands:

            Suppress all publications which “incite hatred and contempt of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy” and are “directed against its territorial integrity”.

            Dissolve the Serbian nationalist organization Narodna Odbrana (“The People’s Defense”) and all other such societies in Serbia.

            Eliminate without delay from schoolbooks and public documents all “propaganda against Austria-Hungary”.
            Remove from the Serbian military and civil administration all officers and functionaries whose names the Austro-Hungarian Government will provide.

            Accept in Serbia “representatives of the Austro-Hungarian Government” for the “suppression of subversive movements”.

            Bring to trial all accessories to the Archduke’s assassination and allow “Austro-Hungarian delegates” (law enforcement officers) to take part in the investigations.

            Arrest Major Vojislav Tankosić and civil servant Milan Ciganović who were named as participants in the assassination plot.

            Cease the cooperation of the Serbian authorities in the “traffic in arms and explosives across the frontier”; dismiss and punish the officials of Šabac and Loznica frontier service, “guilty of having assisted the perpetrators of the Sarajevo crime”.

            Provide “explanations” to the Austro-Hungarian Government regarding “Serbian officials” who have expressed themselves in interviews “in terms of hostility to the Austro-Hungarian Government”.

            Notify the Austro-Hungarian Government “without delay” of the execution of the measures comprised in the ultimatum.


          7. Yes, the austro-hungarian move was primarily an attempt to suppress (what they percieved as) the threat to them rather than some kind of economic (or even ideological) desire for serbian clay IE They were trying to defend what they had by elminating (what they saw as a) a potential threat.

            In this they *vastly* overreached with predictable consequences. (and ended up causing the very thing they were trying to prevent, but that’s what happens)

          8. As has been pointed out by others in this thread, I think the dismissal of imperialism as purely a negative for the states engaging in it doesn’t capture the full picture, and it almost seems to contradict with the actions actually taken by historical actors.

            Indeed; “Pre-modern states/elites were all too stupid to know what their real interests were, unlike us, who know better” may flatter our vanity, but it’s not a very plausible view.

    3. Not that it should need to be said, but the post-1991 regime in Russia is very, very
      capitalist — indeed, it’s fair to say that Putin has largely been coloring within the lines sketched out for Russia during the 1990s neoliberal “shock therapy” era by Western advisors to his predecessor Yeltsin (including the constitutional framework of a de facto presidential dictatorship with a rubber-stamp show parliament) the major differences being that Putin stopped automatically following the US lead on geopolitical questions like whether or not to join Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in 2002-03, and stopped giving Western business interests carte blanche to dictate the terms of new economic deals in their favor.

      The comparison between present-day world conflicts and the geopolitical situation in the runup to World War I seems potentially instructive, in the sense that the makeup of the rival coalitions precluded any straight-faced pretense of the conflict being grounded in principled differences over either capitalist economics (the Kaiser’s Germany being every bit as dedicated to capitalist industrial development as the UK or US) or liberal democratic politics (late tsarist Russia being inarguably more authoritarian and less democratic than contemporary Germany or Austria-Hungary) thus leaving the inescapable conclusion of a conflict grounded in petty self-interested intra-elite squabbling over imperial possessions and economic spheres of influence.

  20. [ “Once countries become rich and free, they tend to stay that way.” ]

    It’s impossible not to think of significant and very recent exceptions, such as Israel.

    1. Significant to inhabitants of the Middle East and US politics, maybe.
      Significant to the rest of the world? Nope. Israel is 0.001% of the world population and 0.004% of the world surface area.

        1. Israel is terrifically armed, thanks to the US. Israel is now in the coalition of Saudi, and certainly pleasant to Russia. Hardly democratic-friendly there.

      1. So what? It’s richer than a whole lot of other countries and it is diametrically opposed now to democracy as it is a theocratic, fascist state that oppresses everyone else that it can. That’s hardly being part of a democratic coalition. So many Israeli women we know are leaving the country if they can, and this includes the grand-daughters and great grand-daughters of Israel’s founding heroes.

        1. So Israel, despite wealth and weapons, remains a tiny country with no significant natural resources and no geographical significance. The Cold War is over, there’s no point in supporting Israel against Soviet influence. Israel is rich because it is part of the status quo coalition; if it loses “membership” due to being a theocratic fascist state it will likely become the North Korea of the Middle East.

          Dr Devereaux was careful to note that states can leave the coalition, although here it would be more Israel being ejected. Australia has a vocal Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement against Israel, and there appear to be similar movements throughout Europe. If the process you describe continues, Israel will find itself being sanctioned into poverty.

        2. What are you actually talking about? All the talk of leaving the country I hear here is from liberals scared of nationalist dictatorship. And it’s all just talk, emigration rates are not that high.

        3. “it is diametrically opposed now to democracy as it is a theocratic, fascist state that oppresses everyone else that it can.”

          This might perhaps be true in the future, but it seems an exaggeration for the present. Few people with Israeli citizenship seem keen to escape it for life in a neighbouring state, so presumably they find it less oppressive than most of those states.

  21. I think Dr. Devereaux has hit upon something real here, but another aspect bolstering an American coalition is that the USA is far away from other major powers. Wars of conquest of regime change at great distance are difficult, even for countries as powerful as America and its status-quo coalition allies (see, e.g., Afghanistan). This means that the USA can play a balancing role without threatening its fellow balancers. Up until, say, April 2022, it was easy to imagine Russia invading the Baltics, then Poland, then stopping…where? Likewise, one could foresee China invading Taiwan, supporting its North Korean ally to invade South Korea, gaining naval supremacy over the East and South China Seas, etc. Countries close to these powers thus have an incentive to ally with the America and its other allies to contain them, but have little reason to ally with other powers against America.

    In 19th-century and early 20th-century Great Britain, history provides an example of another country that attained great power, acted as a balancer, yet created little in the way of an opposing coalition. Britain acted in balancing coalitions against France, then Russia, then Russia again (as an ally-in-being for Japan, keeping potential Russian allies out of the fight), then Germany, then Germany again. A country like France could imagine Germany taking chunks of its territory (based on painful experience), but by the turn of the century, I doubt they thought Albion perfidious enough to try and retake Calais.

    1. Your first paragraph argues for distance as a reason for the U.S. being the head of the coalition, but then your second paragraph brings up the U.K. as a coalition leader for a coalition that sometimes included France, only 21 miles away.

      1. Britain is surrounded by “a silver sea/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house,/Against the envy of less happier lands” (Richard II, Act 2, Scene I). Britain was physically close to the Continent, but the Channel made it militarily distant.

        1. Not a very good wall. It didn’t stop the Romans, Normans, or Danes from invading Britain, nor did it stop Britain from invading other lands, including France. If distance explains the Franco-British alliance in the 20th century, how does it explain the two countries’ longstanding enmity in previous centuries?

          1. We’re talking about the 19th and early 20th centuries here. Once Britain was unified and a naval power, it was a good wall. The latest time Britain invaded France, it required the largest seaborne invasion in history, co-operation with the USA, and years of preparation and planning.

            Before 1815, France was a power attempting break out as a European hegemon, so Britain participated in balancing coalitions against it (note that it was not always the “coalition leader”). When other powers became capable of bidding for European supremacy, Britain joined with France in balancing coalitions against them.

          2. The Channel is an excellent wall if the people you’re fighting have either a navy you can’t casually sweep out of the way or a vast land-bound and heavily equipped state on their own side that can afford to fully devote itself to squashing your invasion force on land.

            The Romans and Danes invaded England during times when it didn’t have the state capacity to mount either the ‘army’ or the ‘navy’ version of that defense. The Norman conquest of England benefited heavily from Harold the Saxon’s ‘army’ defense being distracted and worn down by fighting Harald Hardrada’s forces so soon before. The Allied invasion of Normandy succeeded because the bulk of the German military was off fighting in Russia.

            Meanwhile, constant wars between Britain and France in which neither side succeeded in taking the other side’s core territory (in sixteen Anglo-French wars between 1490 and 1820, none ended with either side taking and keeping territory in the other’s metropolitan territory), and the failure of Germany to launch Operation Sea Lion even when they theoretically had the geopolitical chance, all argue that the Channel is an excellent defensive obstacle as long as the ‘army’ or ‘navy’ defense is intact.

            The notable exceptions (England campaigning in France over and over in the Middle Ages) occurred during a time when the English kings were also among the largest French landholders and had massive estates in France that acted as springboards for the war.

      2. The common factor is that the head of the coalition is unlikely to try and take land from other coalition members — due to distance in the US’ case, and in the UK’s case, because British policy was generally to rely on the navy for defence and avoid picking up hard-to-defend territories in mainland Europe.

    2. I’d like Dr. Deveraux to analyze the 19th century British case of sort-of-hegemon facing relatively little balancing opposition. It’s not the same as the US in many ways (for example, many fewer ideological allies, and *not* foreswearing wars of conquest) but similar in that most countries seemed uninterested in defeating the hegemon, as well as being a relatively liberal country and being generally well-thought of in spite of substantial flaws and even atrocities.

      1. That was the same time that the UK started advocating free trade for all, right?

        (Which worked well for it since it was the first to industrialize, so didn’t need protectionist tariffs to protect its nascent industry like most other industrializing countries…)

      2. I think it’s largely a matter simple of the british managing to successfully divide-and-rule for a fairly long time.(which also probably explains why it was eclipsed by the US, and not say, France or Germany; The UK successfully played balance of politics in europe, but there was neither the interest nor really the possibility to do the same in america)

        Basically the situation ended up being that the continental european powers always had threat closer to home that prevented them from uniting against the british. British conflicts with the mianland powers tended to also be in the (for ideological reaosns) “less important” colonial areas, rather than in Europe. It was a lot easier for the french to concede Fashoda than Alsace-Lorraine.

      3. The biggest thing about 19th century British hegemony is that its largely an aggrandizing fiction. The Continent at the time didn’t think the British were any kind of hegemon. That’s why there wasn’t balancing.

        1. I think one could actually say there was some 19th century balancing against Britain (to match the very clear balancing against Britain in the 1770s). The British had chosen a path of ‘splendid isolation,’ largely avoiding alliances in the late 1800s, but the Second Boer War had both been a shock to British pride but also to how lonely it could be without allies. That in turn led to Britain seeking friends again, which because of the rise of Germany, led them to the Entente Cordiale with France.

          At the very least we may say that Britain did not collect major European allies between 1820 and 1900.

          1. What about the Crimean War? France and Britain remained frenemies, and the Ottomans were no longer a major European ally?

        2. “The Continent at the time didn’t think the British were any kind of hegemon. That’s why there wasn’t balancing.”

          Britain was a hegemon, but a weird one because its hegemony only
          reached outside Europe. It wasn’t credible for other European powers to fear that Britain alone might march into their country and seize a province or two. Austria would rationally fear this from Prussia or Russia or Turkey but not from Britain with its tiny army.

          Outside Europe, though, Britain could snap up your colonies more or less at will.

        3. In the runup to 1848 I believe there were genuine fears of invasion here due to Palmerston pissing all the major Continental regimes off by supporting radicals there (despite not exactly being a radical himself).
          Though I’m not sure these were /credible/ fears

          1. The invasion fears were I think a decade or so later – that’s when you get the Volunteer Movement and the coastal defences.

  22. Hey Bret, I wanted to mention that I’ve enjoyed following your Twitter for quite some time now, but as of the latest changes the site is now literally impossible to read without making an account (which I won’t do). So for what it’s worth I strongly encourage you to focus your activity on other platforms!

  23. Interesting. I would take the Brazilian data with a grain of salt though.

    1) While it said that the interviews were in Portuguese, I couldn’t find a translation of them. Would be nice to see how they translated the questions.

    2) 2023 was done in Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Brasília. If it included more state capitals, the data would be different. Depending on which ones, it could go both ways. Curitiba, Florianópolis and Porto Alegre would likely increase the percentage of people having a favorable opinion of the US, for example. My perception could be flawed in this.

    3) Speaking of flawed perceptions, opinions are that, opinions. For example, two surveys made this very year showed that 44% and 52% of Brazilians considered that their nation could become communist, which simply makes no sense. Brazilians mostly also don’t know what the word even means, they just learned it as a “bad thing” since the 50s, and Bolsonarism revived this fear.

    It’s a bit disheartening to see 63% of Brazilians being favorable to the US really, considering Operation Brother Sam, Operation Condor, and the more recent espionage which helped Operation Car Wash. The collateral effects of that made Brazil less free and crippled our economic prospects. Indirectly, it also contributed to a lot of deaths, fear and hate.

    1. Well, looking at the *actions* of Brazil over the past few decades shows to me a country that is benefiting from and thoroughly invested in what Dr Devereaux calls the “status quo”. Embraer make civilian and military aircraft, with engines from US, Canadian, and Britain. Brazil makes AFVs and even tried to build their own main battle tank, and again with Western components, not Soviet or Chinese. Brazil is building their own nuclear attack sub, which will make them second only to the US in the Americas, and again the technical assistance is coming from status quo member France, not Russia or China.

      The Brazilian president may be *talking* on the side of Russia over Ukraine, but I don’t see any supplies going from Brazil to Russia. Compared to say Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuala, or even Peru (bought Soviet tanks, more recently tried to buy Chinese) Brazil has been consistently pro-Western.

      Brazil has plenty of reasons to be aggrieved about US conduct, as Dr Devereaux noted. The point of this article isn’t that the US is perfect or that the “coalition” are always in agreement, it is that unlike previous eras there are no opposing coalitions forming. I would guess that most Brazilians want the US to be a better superpower, to use its economic and military might for good, which is very different from wanting a ‘balance of power’.

      1. Interesting examples.

        The Saudi decision to buy the M1A1 Abrams over the EE-T2 Osório was likely due to US lobbying, the fact that Iraq was a buyer of Brazilian materiel, and/or the Gulf War, despite its performance and price. Not being able to sell tank to either Saudi Arabia or Iraq sunk the project and the company.

        The nuclear sub project was a direct target of the Car Wash Operation. Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, both the father of the sub and our nuclear enrichment project since 1979, was arrested two times. He is now retired, having some sort of “restriction of rights”, while the judge which sentenced him was forbidden to rule anything. Like I said, Car Wash crippled us, and it had plenty of US interference.

        Btw, Lula also condemned the Russian invasion, but that never became global news the way his criticism of Ukraine and answers to Zelensky did. Barely became news in Brazil itself. He maintains his goals of diplomacy and multipolarity. Just as Brazil didn’t sell any armored vehicles to Ukraine just because they ‘could’ be converted into ambulances, we also never helped Russian military actions.

        I never intended to negate the article itself, but I wanted to show details in the specific area in which I feel confident to say something about. I wouldn’t be able to say anything about the way the questions were translated to languages besides Portuguese, for example.

        For the sake of clarity, I’m not “aggrieved about US conduct”. My personal feelings are mainly hate and sadness. The lack of lawfare could have prevented Bolsonaro of being elected, despite Bannon giving his systematic lying campaign, test-approved by Trump in 2016, to his son in 2018. I just have practice in identifying my feelings and putting them aside.

  24. Thanks, Bret, for your words of welcome to NATO. Google translate did a fine job, both for Finnish and Swedish language.

    I would like to revise your table for Finland: we have been an EU member since 1995. The decision to join the NATO only followed 27 years later, as we perceived that the EU soft power and Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union were not enough to guarantee Finnish security.

  25. Should not the list above also include the Czech Republic, Unitary Parliamentary Republic, annual income per capita $46,527, which would place it between Estonia and Latvia?

    Another question relating to the history of the Roman Republic; I can ask again at another date if preferred. I wonder why Massilia and its extensive network of colonies, and Elea, which became Veia, final destination of the fugitive Phocaeans, chose alliance with Rome? Why did they find that alliance in their best interest? I have read book after article lauding the alleged benign nature of Carthaginian expansion. Carthage wanted only to trade, one reads, had no ambitions for conquest and ownership, unlike the landgrabbing Greeks and imperialistic Romans. Would it not have made balance of power sense for Massilia to ally itself with the Carthaginians against Roman expansion?

    1. I recommend Dexter Hoyos “The Carthaginians” Routledge 2010. In his book, Hoyos details a naval alliance of Carthaginians and Etruscans aimed at the Phocaeans. He also discusses Carthage and Massilia’s fraught trade relations.

      1. Thank you, I clearly am going to have to read Mr. Hoyos. Nearly all historians of the period discuss the Battle of Alalia, of which, I gather, it is fair to say that the Phocaeans lost against a much larger combined fleet, but managed to do enough damage that their families were neither killed nor enslaved. I wonder if wrecks from the battle have ever been found.

  26. “the PRC has the same meager list of allies in 2023 that it had in 1953: North Korea.”
    Pakistan is China’s closest ally (since 1963, at least). They share a common adversary: India.
    China may prefer not to have a lot of allies, who would limit its options or request its help with their own problems.
    That article made the case that rising powers often avoid alliance systems – but strangely also ignores the China-Pakistan alliance.

      1. The alliance has been strained and lacking in trust to say the least for over a decade now, as evidenced by the raid on Bin Laden’s safehouse less than a kilometer from Pakistan’s military officers academy, carried out without Pakistan’s knowledge or consent.

      2. Pakistan pretends to be an ally so that Pakistani elites can send their kids to American colleges, and in order to be able to lobby Congress and have their say about American policy in the Indian Ocean.

        1. Is the Pakistani alliance with China any more genuine?

          I note that Pakistan is _very_ Muslim and China is busy mistreating a major Muslim minority, though I know that often counts for little in ‘realist’ politics.

          1. Who cares about Islam? The more important point would seem to be that the Chinese army is of little use to Pakistan on the Chinese side of the Himalayas, but if it’s on the Pakistani side, how do you guarantee it goes back to the Chinese side when Pakistan wants it to?

            There are few things quite so inconvenient as an allied army that outstays its welcome.

        2. I think a big part of the issue here is that Pakistani elites are much less religious / socially conservative than much of the population, and are terrified of what might happen if they seem too liberal.

          Famously, the governor of the most populous state a while back said openly that he disagreed with the laws against blasphemy, and was promptly assassinated by his own bodyguard (to a lot of popular celebration).

  27. “challenging the United States risks trade agreements with France, or military action from Japan, or economic warfare from Australia, or diplomatic retaliation from Brussels”

    I assume that you choose your words and examples with some care, which is why the above surprised me, because “military action from Japan” except in defence of its own territory seems less likely than from almost any other member of the coalition, given Article 9. Is there any particular reasoning behind this example?

    1. Japan knows that if China successfully challenges the US militarily, they may very well be next. Indeed, that’s one of the major reasons for China (or Russia) to do so.

  28. Is there a parallel between the Status Quo Coalition and Rome’s “kickers, gougers, and screamers” you talked about in the Queen’s Latin series? ( The effect is obviously weaker (Rome falls after all) but, because united Roman rule was (in the long run) beneficial for the people in it ( people who might have been expected, under pressure, to try to revise the system to gain an advantage instead stick tighter to it.

  29. The idea that a change in the sign of the “returns to war” could fundamentally alter inter-state relations is both plausible and appealing. I’d like to assign some evidence to this theory before I start believing it though.

    Given how devastating to a pre-industrial agricultural area a visit by a hostile (or neutral, or friendly) pre-industrial army was, it seems like conquered lands would take a while to pay off the cost of the conquest. If memory serves, that cost is part of the reason we celebrate independence day on the fourth of July. Can someone provide a paradigmatic example or place to start looking for (a) how long it took a conquered region in the pre-modern period to return to previous levels of population and productivity and (b) how long a conquering monarch/state would expect to wait for a war of conquest to pay for itself?

    On the other side of the equation, industrial wars are clearly quite costly, but on a long enough time horizon the economic productivity of an additional industrial city-region would have to pay for itself. I assume all industrial city-regions produce economic surplus for the state which governs them, or if you think that being untrue is core to the overall “returns to war” theory please make that explicit. I’m having a hard time coming up with examples of industrial city-regions being transferred between industrial powers (Konigsberg -> Kaliningrad maybe?), can anyone suggest a place to start looking for the analog to (a) and (b) in the previous paragraph?

    1. For your first point, there’s a lot of evidence about the impact of pre-modern agricultural devastation and generally unless such devastation was maintained over many years (often decades) and quite consistently maintained, conquered lands could be productive again basically immediately. Peasants are canny survivors and so areas of depopulation are rare except in cases of deliberate devastation over long periods.

      1. According to the American historian Tenny Frank, writing for the CAH (I think 1st ed., reprinted in 1965) Southern Italy was left devastated after the 2nd Punic War. “…it has been argued that parts of Italy are still suffering from the consequences of that war”. It would appear that one consequence was destruction of the brilliant, if in decline, civilization of Magna Graecia. I don’t understand the present-day adulation of Hannibal Barca. I find his contemporary, Masinissa overall a far more interesting and consequential figure.

      2. Further to this, yes, a pre-modern army was a rolling disaster to the land it passed through (see ACOUP, passim) but *only* to the land it passed through. The rest of the conquered province would be largely untouched and still productive.

    2. On top of Dr. Devereaux’s reply, a successful pre-industrial military campaign often returns immediate value in the form of loot. Cities and other centers of administrative power and wealth can be plundered for goods that are valuable to the elite and which can be sold off for whatever else the conquering country wants. Depending on the society, selling part of the conquered population into slavery also provides a revenue boost for the army and the government. And, of course, if the army is stealing food grown by the people it’s trying to conquer, it isn’t eating food its employer has to pay for. Likewise, in at least some pre-industrial environments it’s possible to hold an army together with promises of direct loot even without paying them directly, which is a huge cost savings for the state and shows up on the (metaphorical) balance sheet as a sort of “discount” on the cost of conquest.

      In industrial times, this kind of looting usually doesn’t go so well.

      Furthermore, while you’re not wrong to point out that not all territories of an industrial state are profitable, the problem isn’t just absolute. It’s relative. The place may not be profitable to its nominal owner in peacetime, but after it changes hands in war, it’s even less profitable to the new owner, now that all the infrastructure’s been blown up and the occupying army can’t go around collecting taxes (or even rebuilding the roads) without the locals taking potshots at them.

    3. The two big 20th century industrial wars, World Wars One and Two, were both unique enough that it’s hard to draw generalizations from them on any economic “payoff” of industrial war*- even omitting the influence of nuclear weapons since then.

      Due to the technology available at the time, World War One was peculiarly costly, futile and locally extremely destructive; if it could have been a 20th century repeat of the Franco-Prussian War the analysis might have been different.

      The Second World War (ETO) was ultimately about a failed attempt by Germany to institute “National Socialism” as an alternative to conventional capitalism; which in practice amounted to a war-mobilization economy subsidized in the short term by the plunder of its neighbors. The razing of most physical plant east of Germany was seen as part of a long-term plan to return the territory to a pre-industrial condition which would then eventually be colonized and redeveloped as German lebensraum. And obviously losing the war and suffering extreme destruction in its home territory was not part of the German plan.

      *with the possible exception of “stay out of the war as much as possible, get rich selling war material, and pick up the pieces afterwards”.

      1. Just picking on the WWII stuff…

        The razing of most physical plant east of Germany was seen as part of a long-term plan to return the territory to a pre-industrial condition which would then eventually be colonized and redeveloped as German lebensraum.

        The problem here is that, when the most important productive capacity of an area to be conquered is that industrial infrastructure, this is an idiotic plan.

        And obviously losing the war and suffering extreme destruction in its home territory was not part of the German plan.

        The thing is, it wasn’t just Germany. All of Europe except for maybe Spain (which fought its own war earlier, and on its own) got thoroughly wrecked by the second world war. Wikipedia cites research that says that 70% of Europe’s industrial infrastructure was destroyed in that war. ( Basically anywhere that the war was fought, which is pretty much everywhere east of Spain and west of Moscow ended up devastated.

        On the bright side, this produced an absolutely unprecedented run of fast economic growth. (France calls roughly 1950-1980 the “thirty glorious” years, as a reference to the “three glorious” days which instituted the Second Republic.) But I wouldn’t exactly choose having a war as a way to make room for growth.

        In any event, it’s possible that we can’t draw conclusions about things that aren’t major alliance wars from the two wars between alliances of technologically leading nations, but I get the impression that we’re already seeing a similar effect on the ground where the war in Ukraine is being fought, even though these combatants aren’t carpet-bombing each others’ cities.

        1. The problem here is that, when the most important productive capacity of an area to be conquered is that industrial infrastructure, this is an idiotic plan.

          I won’t say it wasn’t a fanatical plan, but it made a certain sense in the context of wanting eventually to completely Germanify the conquered territories. Remember, the Nazis weren’t after a polyglot empire like a latter-day Austria-Hungary. They didn’t want the east as trading partners or even as captive client states like the Warsaw Pact was for the Soviet Union; they wanted to transform the region into part of a Greater Germany. Replacing their populations and maybe even their cities with new German ones; and in the meantime reducing the territories to depopulated agrarian states that would pose no resistance. Basically Hitler wanted to do to eastern Europe what the colonial settlers did to North America.

          1. If the alternate-history genre was a bit more imaginative, there’d be far fewer endless retreads of the “victorious Confederacy and/or Third Reich” storyline, and instead we’d have massive Turtledove-style sagas about an industrialized North American indigenous communist bloc fending off a Barbarossa-style westward blitzkrieg over the Appalachians by European settler armies.

          2. Even Marx saw that Marxism did not fit the United States. (His logic was that would go away once the frontier closed.)

          3. @Skinner_Was_Right
            Have you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Years of Rice and Salt” ? If not, it is alternate history from the 14th C minus Europeans.

          4. “massive Turtledove-style sagas about an industrialized North American indigenous communist bloc fending off a Barbarossa-style westward blitzkrieg over the Appalachians by European settler armies.”

            I would totally love to read that.

            Or for example a saga about the Inca state making it into modern times and successfully fighting off the Spanish.

    4. I wonder if another aspect is better family planning, due to better birth control and lower child mortality.

      My impression is that with agrarian societies, you’d often have a bunch of good years, then not so good, leaving you with ‘excess population’. War is then “heads you win some loot or land and maybe slaves, tails at least you die quickly rather than starving to death”. (Possibly via raids vs. then organized war as a response to such raids.)

      The same dynamic _really_ doesn’t exist for modern rich industrialized countries.

    5. “I’m having a hard time coming up with examples of industrial city-regions being transferred between industrial powers (Konigsberg -> Kaliningrad maybe?)”

      The Sudetenland was heavily industrialised, as was the Rhineland. Alsace had an important textile industry. Silesia changed hands several times and has a lot of coal and chemical manufacturing, I think? Singapore had the only serious shipyards in SE Asia.

      Of course the trouble is that none of these transfers really lasted long enough for the conquest to pay off.

  30. I think the notion of the sacredness of territorial integrity demands *a bit* of a caveat: Namely that this aggression happened *in Europe*, while similar actions in say, Africa would likely have caused *some* level of condemnation from the coalition, I don’t think you’d have seen anywhere near the same level of support had one of the belligerents of the Congo conflict decided to alter the borders.

    1. I think you make a good point.

      A coalition to preserve the status quo is not the same as a coalition to end warfare, and is not morally equivalent to one.

    2. A generation ago this level aggression occurred in the Middle East when Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait, and “the coalition” responded not with condemnation and sanctions but with full scale deploy-all-the-tank-divisions war.

      Does that count as a “degree of support”?

      1. Iraq prior to the Kuwait invasion had nuclear aspirations, and annexing Kuwait’s oil resources might have given Hussein the resources to pursue them (eventually), and possibly destabilize Saudi Arabia. It’s understandable that some existing status quo powers got concerned about the possibility to a degree they might not have about random border rearrangements in Africa.

        1. To add to that, the status quo coalition did respond in a much more muted fashion back in 2014 when the war was closer to the random border arrangements type as opposed to the full scale invasion type.

        2. “Iraq prior to the Kuwait invasion had nuclear aspirations”

          Was this widely known at the time, though? The Osirak raid was not welcomed by the West; the US media condemned it as an act of terrorism by Israel and the entire UNSC voted to condemn it as aggression.
          After that, as far as I know, the Iraqi weapons programme was not well known. It was a hell of a shock to everyone when a bomb ripped the roof off that warehouse that turned out to be full of calutrons.

          1. I’m pretty sure at least US and french intelligence was aware of Iraq’s nucelar aspirations since the Iran-Iraq war. I’m not sure how widely known it was though.

    3. Africa has actually had surprisingly few border rearrangements since independence, mostly because there was a de facto understanding that all the borders were artificial, so if one country decided to challenge to borders, everyone else was at risk too.

      (Civil wars like Biafra, etc., don’t really count in this context since they were plausibly about ethno-national self determination, rather than about border wars per se).

      Some of the few exceptions, like Ethiopia vs. Somalia and Ethiopia vs. Eritrea, are sort of the exceptions that prove the rule since both neither Ethiopia nor Somalia is really a colonial creation in the normal sense. (Somalia is more or less a unified, homogeneous nation-state, and Ethiopia was formed by domestic rather than colonial expansion).

  31. This was an interesting article, but I think you’ve tied yourself into knots trying to avoid a material analysis as to why wars actually happen. The conclusion that wars are wholly unprofitable but happen because of humans baser instincts and thus the solution is educating people and institutions to be more peaceful just does not stand up to the reality of a world under a global capitalist order. I understand this is a bit of a caricature of your argument, I still think it grasps the central conclusion.

    Imperialism and the competition between states is the driver of war. The main question today are the rising tensions between the US and China. Not only would a war between these two powers be monetarily unprofitable but the threat of drawing the whole world into the war and the total annihilation of humanity is also on the table. Both of these powers understand this, but both relentlessly charge ahead in expanding their economic, military and political spheres in South Asia and beyond.

    So why? Is it because Xi Jinping and Biden or too silly to understand that what they’re doing is bad for the stability and profitability of their nations? Quite the opposite. Because of the demands of constant growth and profit, these states are forced into direct competition with each other, of which the the highest form is a hot war. This is the nature of Imperialism, and cannot be undercut or prevented by anything other than a changing of the entire system of which the world is ruled by.

    1. >Imperialism and the competition between states is the
      >driver of war. The main question today are the rising
      >tensions between the US and China… [war would be]…
      >unprofitable… and the total annihilation of humanity is
      >also on the table. Both of these powers understand this,
      >but both relentlessly charge ahead in expanding their
      >economic, military and political spheres in South Asia
      >and beyond.

      Notably, neither the US nor China does anything even remotely likely to promote a nuclear war between the two countries. This is like arguing that two rival football teams continue to play games against each other despite the fact that theoretically such conflict could escalate into a gunfight between the opposing teams. It completely misunderstands the nature of limited conflict within rules.

      Also, while this (Marx-based, possibly?) analysis that all capitalist states will inevitably come into violent conflict over the need for profits sounds very elegant on paper, it smacks into a practical problem. As noted in the essay, fifteen of the twenty biggest economic powers in the world are either US allies or closely tied to the US, and only about two of the other five remain neutral and do not challenge the US-led combination.

      I have no deep personal love for capitalism as an institution, but it simply isn’t true to claim that countries are inevitably driven by capitalism to fight each other. Even if we were to claim that the government of a capitalist state is nothing but a gang of robbers, it is quite remarkable that fifteen of the twenty biggest gangs in town have all formed a single alliance that does not fight among themselves and mostly does not fight the others either.

      Clearly, the assertion that the robbers “MUST” fight among themselves has some holes in it. The robbers do not seem to think that they need to do any such thing! They appear to have found some way to make the inevitable conflict evitable, at least in the near future.

      1. This idea that some people have that capitalist states are especially likely to fight each other seems to fit badly with the existence of the EU, and the fact that the leading capitalist states almost all seem to be allies with each other.

        I wonder if some people think that Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler or Vladimir Putin were distinguished from other rulers by their enthusiasm for capitalism.

    2. The conclusion is that wars have become wholly unprofitable, probably since World War One, but continue to happen because ideological and political thinking have been slow to catch up on the new reality. War is indeed the original raison d’être of states and it’s interesting to speculate what might eventually happen to governments in a world in which open war becomes unthinkable for any number of reasons. But the whole point of Devereaux’s blog post is to make the case that the “demands of constant growth and profit” now laregely exclude a “hot” war.

      1. You simplify a lot by claiming that war is the reason of existemce for states. I would say that it is more general than that: the state’s main reason of existence is its monopoly on legitimate violence. This, then, allows it to organise society in a way that discourages production of negative externalities: i.e. the state organises the markets of various products by setting the rules.

        We have already seen this development happen in the EU. In 2000’s and 2010’s, the smaller EU countries had mostly demilitarised quite completely. The defence establishments were small, professional bodies about the size of the national police force, with two main capacities: either act (on platoon to company level) as part of a US-led coalition in a force projection operation as a gesture of solidarity, or to help in internal catastrophes like floos. The third capactity was prestige: posting various honour guards and doing ceremonial duties.

        On the other hand, the governments and civilian administration remained very lively, and working. So, this is what societies in deep peace look like. They will not suddenly become anarchies, though the amount of personal freedom is immense.

        1. I meant that historically it was the original reason for the rise of states, since agriculture placed a premium on control of territory and especially warfare was in pre-industrial times the primary mechanism by which economic turnover took place. I was conceding that point while refuting the Marxist notion that the very existence of a (culturally and economically) competitive state inevitably demands open warfare.

          1. Control of territory was important to shepherds too. See Genesis 13, 7.

            Also, animals that don’t do any agriculture have bad fights over control of territory.

          2. Well, if we’re going to be nitpicking, perhaps the more accurate thing to say would be:

            “The original reason for the rise of states is that they were a more effective way to organize the capacity for violence, within the context of early agricultural civilizations.”

            It’s not that only farmers value getting to keep their land. It’s that farmers who want to keep their land have the option of forming a state to keep it for them, whereas nomadic hunter-gatherers do not. Not even if the hunter-gatherers very much value the right to hold secure territory and are entirely willing to fight for it!

    3. “conclusion that wars are wholly unprofitable but happen because of humans baser instincts and thus the solution is educating people and institutions to be more peaceful”

      It seems like you haven’t actually read anything Bret says.

  32. I think it’s also interesting how the invasion of Ukraine has changed the position of Switzerland: they are still officially neutral, but AFAIK for the first time in their semi-recent history they joined in the sanctions against Russia, and are even considering other forms of support.

    1. Swiss neutrality made excellent sense in a world where the most likely conflicts for them to get involved in would be wars fought by armies marching back and forth between France, Germany, and Italy. Whoever won such a war, if Switzerland got involved, the Swiss themselves would probably lose, simply by being trapped on the front lines of the conflict and not strong enough to hope to demand a share of the spoils.

      Swiss neutrality also made some sense when the most likely conflict was a nuclear war involving the Soviet Union, because it left them the hope that Switzerland would not be directly targeted by nuclear weapons and thus allowed to go on living as best it could in the aftermath.

      Since France, Germany, and Italy are now unlikely to go to war with each other, and the perceived threat of the Russians actually launching nuclear war have apparently gone down… there goes the neutrality.

      1. To at last some extent, I feel like the origin of Swiss neutrality was also that at that point, any war between France, Germany, and Italy would likely become a Swiss /Civil/ War if it got involved at all

  33. I think it is illustrative that the UK trying to leave their specific section of the Status Quo Coalition while staying in the coalition still had a clear negative effect on them. Each country in the EU is so invested in the current system that changing it too much has big economic costs for them.

  34. Bret, very few proofreading concerns this morning, but there is one outright typo:

    If it several larger powers > If it is
    example of this: one it becomes clear > once
    with the United States and few more > and a few more
    polling this this varies > polling like this (?)
    institutions, but theses are, in a sense > these
    typo: ameniable should be amenable

  35. Unpacking this blog post would be a good exercise for someone learning how to decipher facts from fiction when perusing unreliable narratives.

    Here is just one example. The “study of global perceptions of the United States” released by the Pew Center depicts a strangely selective slice of the world, unless your “world” happens to weigh Europe more than the totality of South/Central America + Africa + the Middle East. There is a blatant bias towards nations living under the American Cold War umbrella. We have a Middle East which is wholly represented by… Israel. And a “23-country median” in which, say, India and Israel are placed on equal footing.

    Do we get any honest, detailed commentary about this study and its evident flaws? Nope. Instead, Bret presents this data package with the header “global opinion looks like this”. Sure.

    At the end he tries to brush off the rather glaring misrepresentations with the claim that these countries are (a “solid cross-cut” of those) most likely to be “major global power centers” (aka Greece, Poland, Mexico,…). Which is, of course, another way of saying that the opinions of “powerless” nations apparently don’t matter so much for his assessment of America’s role in the world. Hmm.

    That aside, our list of supposed “major global power centers” omits Russia and China. Apparently Bret thinks this is because it is “impossible” to do such polling there. Well, he better go and tell the Copenhagen-based Alliance of Democracies Foundation, who apparently didn’t get the memo and in fact DID conduct polls in both Russia and China (and elsewhere) earlier this year. I wonder what their opinion of America’s role in the world might be.

    Bret then proffers the rather dramatic conclusion “the average respondent thinks that the United States is a meddlesome busy-body that only occasionally considers the needs of other countries… and that the United States is THUS a force for good and peace and they like it very much, thank you” (emphasis mine).

    Again, a more honest narrator would have emphasized here that word “respondent” means that we are weighing the opinion of a typical Israeli much more than that of a typical Indian.

    And the “thus” quietly inserted here is doing rather a lot of work. The Pew diagram lists 4 independent questions. At no point does it claim any relation between them. In particular, at no point does it claim that those who think that “the US contributes to peace and stability around the world” think so BECAUSE “the US interferes in affairs of other countries”. It may well be “in spite of” rather than “because”. Yet Bret just dives in and claims this anyway. No evidence at all.

    What kind of scholar makes so many mistakes and leaves so many loose ends unexplained when interpreting data? Generally speaking, it is the kind who is driving towards a predetermined conclusion, and for whom data sets are but fishing expeditions to cherry-pick ones which bolster that conclusion.

    While this post offers a fascinating window into the mindset of American exceptionalism, I’m afraid that’s about all it offers in terms of intellectual value.

    1. I think you may be misunderstanding the scope of the article.

      I think the point is not to say “everyone everywhere loves America,” it is to say “people in the rich countries seem to like America much more than one might expect.” The survey is strongly biased in favor of rich countries, but that’s part of the qualification I put in italics.

      This is then used as a lead-in to the observation that nearly all the rich countries have formed a big US-centered coalition. Which is not what you’d expect, given the relative balance of power between the US and “the entire rest of the world put together,” based on theories of state relations from pre-industrial times.

      So to some extent I think you’re seeing this article as dishonest or misrepresenting the facts because you expect it to talk about facts that are outside the scope of its thesis. The point of the thesis is that this alliance exists, that it is mostly formed out of countries that are BOTH wealthy AND run by state systems that adhere to certain systems of values (you can look up Freedom House’s scoring tools for yourself), and that this alliance seems quite profitable for its own members.

      Whether there are people in other countries who hate the US or its coalition (but are not members) is not part of the thesis.

      In fairness, in spite of this, saying that polling Russia and China is “impossible” is a major faux pas, though it would still be quite true to say that one cannot be confident in the value of results from those countries. In Russia in particular, this is not a good time to get caught saying that the US is doing good things for the world order, even as Russian tanks are being blown up by American rocket launchers supplied to Ukraine!

    2. I’ve had a look at the Alliance of Democracies Foundation reports for 2021 and 2022. The 2021 survey asked “do you think the United States has a positive or negative impact on democracy around the world”?; the 2022 survey asked “what is your overall perception of the United States?” Both seem close enough to the Pew survey Dr Devereaux quoted to serve as a cross-check.

      In 2021 Asia and Latin America were both majority positive, Europe was somewhat negative, and surprise surprise Russia and China rated the US very very negative.

      In 2022 the US is is favourable overall in Asia, Latin America, and now Europe overall. Russia and China continue to rate the US negatively. Interestingly they are joined by five European countries: Hungary, Switzerland, Turkey, Austria, Greece. The only other country in the negative group is Indonesia. The top ten most positive views come from every continent: Poland, Nigeria, Kenya, Ukraine, Morocco, India, Vietnam, Columbia, Philippines, Romania.

      So yeah, according to the Alliance of Democracies Foundation the US is viewed positively across most of the world.

    3. So I was reading the Alliance of Democracies Foundation report for 2022 more thoroughly and noticed something. (If you’re wondering why I’m not reading the 2023 report, I got a 404 error when I tried to download it.) Russia is one of the countries being surveyed, but Russia doesn’t show up in some of the tables.

      Here are questions you can’t ask / can’t answer in Russia:

      “Democracy in my country is threatened by economic inequality”
      “Democracy in my country is threatened by limits on free speech”
      “Democracy in my country is threatened by unfair elections”
      “Democracy in my country is threatened by corruption”

  36. Quite en interesting post, but I would like to point to two potential problems that can be found in this theory:
    -As it has been said, “human nature”: Blunders like Brexit or the election of President Trump… not to say about President Putin. I think we humans have a perennial inclination to make a mess of things.
    -Limited resources: The hope of a “rich countries long peace” is supported by a unrestricted exploitation of raw materials. It is not clear that we can carry on with the present consumtion rate.climate
    And we can add the stress caused by climate change on the well-being of poor countries.

    1. Interesting thought on the human nature part (I admit it’s some sci fi/ far future speculations) I do wonder if at some point in the distant future we will have such of a understanding of the various components of “human nature” that a civilization might collectively decide that such components should be tweaked in order to deal with such inclinations
      towards destructive conflict. Granted I don’t see this as something in the close future but I suppose it is something to think about

  37. “That said, it is worth remembering that even pessimistic climate change projections now expect that the impacts of climate change will cause global incomes to rise more slowly, not fall.11”

    There is a lot about the climate crisis that we don’t know. It could be a lot worse than the relatively optimistic prognoses from the IPCC. There is a lot of uncertainty about how fast climate change is going to happen. We don’t know whether there will be more or less sudden threshold effects (an easily understandable example would be large parts of the Amazon burning) that will make things worse. And most importantly, we don’t know how human societies are going to react. The rising heat is going to cause social and international tensions. Rising food prices have often had disruptive effects and can cause revolutions and war. If the combined crises contributes to a nuclear war between say China and Russia over Siberia, the economic consequence might become a lot higher. This is extremely difficult to model.

    I skimmed the linked climate study, and it seems interesting. But as far as I can tell it mostly looks at historical data, and does not even try to predict the economic effects of widespread ecosystem collapse. It does not capture the economic effect of rising seas which could become extremely expensive. And does it really capture the economic effect if large parts of the world becomes so warm that it is difficult for people to survive during summer?

    We don’t really know how bad climate change is going to be. There is significant uncertainty, but we do know that the more the world limits emissions the less bad it will be. There is a lot of positive things happening. But we are not out of the woods yet.

    1. “we do know that the more the world limits emissions the less bad it will be. ”

      And how do we know that?

      Especially since they insist on limiting emissions by the insane way, rather than the obvious solution of more nuclear plants?

      Lack of energy kills.

      1. 1) We know that reduced emissions tends to make global warming less bad, in and of itself, because all the effects of global warming, literally all, are more pronounced with more CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s a very one-to-one relationship; there is no number of blankets you can pile on top of yourself where piling on one more blanket will make you cooler.

        2) If there are secondary effects such as you describe (“lack of energy kills”), they can likewise be accounted for with math, not rhetoric. I would look forward to that.

        3) You seem to imagine a coherent, universal “they” consisting of all who advocate fighting global warming, and that “they” agree upon a policy of, I don’t know, shutting off all the power plants without replacement and banning the use of internal combustion engines likewise without replacement?

        This does not accurately reflect the opinions of a typical person who supports fighting global warming. Someone who wants to shift our balance of power plant capacity from coal towards solar cells and wind turbines is not advocating “have less energy so that more people will die.” They are advocating getting a comparable amount of energy from different sources. This is no different from, say, advocating replacing a coal-fired power plant with a gas turbine plant so that downtown isn’t choked out by coal smoke all the time. It’s practical, not some ideological hatred of industrial technology.

        For nearly all of us who expect to still be alive 25-50 years from now, the desire to fight climate change is not an ideological hatred of industrial civilization. It is pragmatic, focused on the hope of retiring in a world that is not unlivable, or where we do not find our serenity disturbed by the dire consequences of much of the rest of the world becoming unlivable.

        1. Had the desire to reduce CO2 been “pragmatic” then everybody would build nuclear power plants. It is a religious movement led by people who can’t do math. In addition the high-priests of this religion know that it is bullshit. Therefore they live by the beach next to the “rising oceans”; e.g. Obama in Martha’s Vineyard and Al Gore by the beach in California.

          1. 1) Red herring #1. Rich people can live where they like and have the money to write off a property if they are unable to sell it off to someone else (e.g. an equally rich person who doesn’t believe in global warming). The question you want to ask is, what is actually happening in communities that live a few feet above sea level? Are they observing sea level rise, fall, or neutrality?

            2) Red herring #2. The belief that global warming is happening does not have a handful of ‘high priests.’ It is not dictated as a top-down propaganda movement. There is no ‘top.’ Al Gore is the global warming advocate you’ve heard of, not the advocate who told people to worry about it. Plenty of people were already worried about it before Al Gore released a documentary. Some of them were worrying about it for decades; you can find the publications.

            3) If global warming is bullshit, then it becomes hard to explain regular summer sea passages through the Northwest Passage, or before-and-after photos of the same glacier on the same mountain in 1920 versus 2020. The effects of changing climate are already here, and the trends are too consistent and rapid for this to be a matter of blind happenstance.

            4) Right now, solar power has lower costs per kilowatt-hour than nuclear. People aren’t investing in solar energy because it’s a cult or because they’re fools who want a ‘weak’ thing instead of a ‘strong’ thing. They’re investing in solar energy because it’s cheap and scalable and you can build small amounts of it and add incrementally over time. Whereas if you want to get into the nuclear reactor business, you have to go from “zero” to “billion dollar investment that won’t pay off until construction finishes in several years” with no intermediate steps.

            5) There is a significant gap between the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-global warming movement. The idea that there is a single lockstep cult that all believes all the same things is a myth. You will find people who are concerned about global warming and don’t trust the nuclear industry to build safe reactors, and thus feel compelled to seek alternatives. You will find people who are concerned about global warming and advocate more investment in nuclear power (e.g. me).

            But most importantly, you will find people who are concerned about global warming and are pragmatically in favor of doing whatever is cheap and effective to reduce fossil fuel consumption without causing some other entirely different catastrophe, and who are none too picky about how this is done. Which is where most serious advocates of governmental action are on the problem.

        2. No, it’s not one to one. It turns on the doubling of the carbon dioxide. Which is to say, the big problem was in the 19th century and it’s too late to fix that now.


            See the smaller, lower of the two graphs near the top- the one that is colored blue rather than yellow.

            Global carbon dioxide levels were around 270 parts per million in 3000 BC, around 280 ppm in 1 AD, around 300 ppm in 1900, around 320 ppm in the mid-1960s, and are around 420 ppm today.

            Carbon dioxide levels have not yet doubled relative to pre-industrial levels (thank God!), and the vast majority of the increase has taken place within the last 50-75 years.

            Even if you think carbon dioxide has no effect on the climate, the reason for this is obvious. Just look at the total amounts of coal and oil being dug out of the ground now, versus twenty years ago, versus 100 or 200 years ago. Despite all the focus on steam power and coal-fired technology in the 1800s, their ability to dig up fossil fuels and burn them was puny compared to ours. Thus, the rate at which they could pump new carbon into the atmosphere was puny compared to the rate at which we now do so.

            A civilization that can rip off entire mountaintops to dig out the coal seams underneath and that can exploit new oilfields in every corner of the globe at once is going to extract more fossil fuels than one that is still struggling to fully exploit the most accessible oilfields and is still going down into the mines with pick-axes as they did in 1880.

        3. In the short term we know that absent any other effects the more we reduce emissions the better. In the short term we do not know precisely which methods of achieving that reduction would potentially be used nor really the exact cost/benefit analysis of each. Some, like replacing coal with solar energy are clear positives. Some, like genocide would be clearly bad. And there’s plenty of ideas between the obviously good and obviously monstrous extremes.

          In the very long term it’s harder to say because who knows what climate is actually “best” anyway?

          1. Replacing coal with solar power IS genocide. Solar power does not produce a fraction of what is needed to keep people alive.

          2. What is your mental picture of what “replacing coal power with solar power” means, and does it align to what major industrialized nations that try to ‘green’ their power grids are actually doing?

            Because it seems that your mental picture of “replacing coal power with solar power” involves, I don’t know, forcibly decommissioning all coal plants immediately and replacing them with a puny handful of solar power arrays that do not produce enough megawattage to replace the coal-fired plants that have been shut down, and making no provisions to provide electricity at night or store it when it is shut down.

            But no industrialized nation has done this, and I cannot even think of any credible major institution that has suggested that one do so.

            Your argument would seem to fall apart if someone’s idea of “replacing coal” is to build a robust network based on renewables, that had equal total generating capacity and the ability to go on functioning when the sun’s not out or the weather’s unfavorable.

        4. You seem to imagine a coherent, universal “they” consisting of all who advocate fighting global warming, and that “they” agree upon a policy of, I don’t know, shutting off all the power plants without replacement and banning the use of internal combustion engines likewise without replacement?

          The Paris Accords, and more specifically the EU’s plans for implementing them, do indeed point into that direction, at least superficially: The countries committing themselves to “net zero emissions by 2050” have not explicitly made that commitment conditional on having built up sufficient clean energy sources by that point. So, at least in theory, if these countries still produce their electricity with coal by 2050 (and also don’t have negative-emissions technology in place by then), they have committed themselves to shutting the coal plants off without replacement, causing a nationwide blackout at that point in time.

          Of course, these unconditional commitments are mainly intended to scare politicians into actions: build more windmills now, or your constituents won’t have electricity in the future, because the coal plant will be shut down, whether there’s a clean replacement or not. If push comes to shove however, most governments will probably rather opt to blatantly disregard international treaties and even their own constitution rather than cause severe economic damage to their country.

          1. We’ve already had power outrages from idiotic environmentalism. The windmills in Texas froze because the bureaucrats demanded that they couldn’t use gas motors to start up.

          2. “windmills froze because”

            Yeah, I don’t believe you. What, _Texas bureaucrats_ forbade using gas motors? The same bureaucrats who could only recommend, not enforce, winterization of power generation after the _previous_ time Texas froze over? Your claim lacks plausibility and sounds like conservative propaganda.

            In reality, wind was a small part of power, and the gas system itself froze up, because Texas companies don’t invest in robustness.

          3. Mary, mindstalko, both of you – enough. You descend into this sort of bickering on almost every post. It isn’t substantive or helpful.

  38. In the last column of the table, if France is “oui” then Canada should be “yes/oui.”

    1. In Canadian bilingual contexts, the French and the English texts are equally authoritative. So either alone is effective.

      Also, if you only use one it does less to highlight the bit where, frankly, both are almost always mutually comprehensible (favourite example from a recent boarding video – Welcome aboard = Bienvenue a bord. Truly, we are two solitudes divided and unable to ever reconcile).

  39. The whole interstate anarchy things feels like the political equivalent of assuming a point mass in a frictionless plane. It’s easy to think of mechanisms by which the returns on investment dont monotonically translate to state power and it’s not hard to come up with more detailed explanations that are quite unrelated (personal vanity, cycles of retribution, cultural or religious chauvenism).

    1. The trick is that much as gases actually behave surprisingly closely like we’d expect if they were non-interacting point masses ricocheting around in a box, such that the “Ideal Gas Law” is a reasonably accurate approximation for many purposes…

      …Interstate anarchy is a surprisingly good model in some times and places. Among other things, because:

      1) While it’s easy to think of mechanisms where returns on investment don’t translate to state power, this tends not to override the part where in pre-industrial societies, controlling more land and more peasants equals more power. There are exceptions, but not enough to make them more than edge cases.

      2) People having more reasons to fight each other in interstate anarchy doesn’t make the conclusions of the model less valid. After all, the core conclusion is that everyone is normally striving to strengthen themselves at others’ expense because war might break out at any time!

  40. This post made me understand what I have called “US hegemony” before better. And I would agree, for countries who are “free and rich”, it makes sense to work together in this way. But I am less optimistic about the future of the coalition. The current trends to me seem to be slowly turing against the Status Quo and the Status Quo coalition, both within and without. This trend is probably reversable, but that depends on future politicy decisions.

    A thing I find interesting in this regard is that Russia and China were anti-US during the Cold War, then for a time (90s and 2000s) became more friendly with the US, then returned to competition. Maybe part of the reason we don’t see more widespread anti-US balancing is simply uncertainty about how strong the United States (and the Status Quo coalition) are. Perhaps these challengers re-emerged because of the US failures in the Middle East made the US appear weaker than it seemed at the end of the Cold War.

    But I think the reason is a different one: The US basically won the cold war by promising Russia and China “you too can be rich”. But when Russia tried to be free and rich and it lead to chaos, so it became unfree again and didn’t become rich. China tried to be rich without being free, which worked better, but even there the economic growth slowed down. And it isn’t the only country that might get stuck half way to becoming rich. As Bret says, we don’t seem to know a sure way of a country becoming rich. But the promise of “everyone can become free and rich” is an important part of the legitimacy of the Status Quo coalition.

    And, as far as I can tell, much of the reemergence of strategic competition between the US and China was actually driven by the US. China’s line of reasoning for a some time was “we don’t have to be enemies, we could be equal partners”. Perhaps the US thought they were lying, or perhaps the US considers non-free countries untrustworthy in principle. (With Hungary and Turkey I also get the impression that their ambivalence about supporting the Status Quo coalition was driven by the freer members of the coalition who insisted that you have to be free to be a full coalition member.)

    So my impression is that the Status Quo coalition is trending towards becoming weaker instead of stronger over time, unless a reliable way for countries to becoming free and rich and staying free and rich is found. (Note also that within the Status Quo coalition many people are worried about staying rich and/or staying free in the future.)

    1. I’m not sure it’s easy to identify a trend like this.

      Russia has not been able to break out and gain strength at the coalition’s expense, and seems to be in the process of beating itself into a wreck against the coalition’s outer wall of proxies.

      China continues to spar with the US, but also continues to trade with the US, and with many other coalition members. I’m not sure they were ever ‘bribed’ with the prospect of “you, too, can become rich” and if they were, the promise was arguably kept- they are getting richer than they were in 1989, and have been quite steadily for a long time, and that prosperity is benefiting both their elite and their masses. Of course, part of that wealth comes from continuing to participate in the coalition’s system even as they spar with the US over just how much influence the US (and coalition) get to have in their immediate neighborhood.

      I think the half-joking characterization of China as a ‘frenemy’ still applies.

      1. China is not free, but then it’s less oppressed even under Xi than compared to the era of Deng, right? And certainly less than under Mao. So even that half of the “promise” is arguable.

        1. “China is not free, but then it’s less oppressed even under Xi than compared to the era of Deng, right?”

          I’m not an area specialist but I think that assertion might be questioned. My impression is that the scope for political discussion in China was much broader under Jiang and even under Hu (while still being pretty oppressive!) and it’s tightened up a lot under Xi. But I’ll defer to people who know more about this issue.

          1. Both are basically correct: Xi has been tightening autocratic measures that had been let a bit more loose under Jiang and Hu, but he isn’t quite back to early Deng levels, much less full-on Maoism.

      2. “outer wall of proxies”? I object to this characterization, because the coalition only began to back Ukraine over Russia after Russia began to seize pieces of it, and even then Ukraine was the main actor rather than the coalition members.

        1. To clarify, Ukraine is engaged in a fierce, righteous, and entirely self-motivated effort to defend themselves.

          At the same time, from the perspective of the NATO coalition, Ukraine is in effect a proxy.

          The combatants in a proxy war usually have very good reasons to fight one another! What makes it a proxy war is that some outside power is aiding one or both sides of the conflict in pursuit of their own broader objectives.

          There is nothing wrong with having powerful allies because those allies with to see your enemy cast down and ruined by its reckless decision to attack you!

          But to those powerful allies, you are a proxy.

          1. I think this is a very broad definition of “proxy war” that doesn’t fit with how it’s normally used. Almost every war in modern history has one or both sides supported by outside actors who stand to benefit from their allies winning. The normal understanding of “proxy war” is that the war is happening *because* of those outside powers – there’s an implication that the combatants aren’t the real decision-makers. There’s an understood elision between “proxy” and “puppet” – in common language, after all, a proxy is someone who acts solely on behalf of another.

            (That’s why pro-Russians are so keen to use the term for the Ukraine war, because it excuses their side’s failure – “we’re not fighting the hohols, we’re fighting all of NATO” – and because it strengthens their argument that Ukraine isn’t a real country.)

            Would you say that Russia is an Iranian proxy?

    2. If the rest of the thesis is correct, then the path to free and rich doesn’t have to be reliable. If the state of free and rich is truly “sticky” then the coalition can grow even if the path to membership is random chance – just so long as the dice keep rolling.

    3. China was not anti-US during the Cold War, or at least the last half of it. China was in fact an unofficial US ally for that latter period thanks to the Sino-Soviet Split and Nixon’s rapprochement. For instance, the USSR and China fought several undeclared border wars and Soviet proposals for limited nuclear bombardment of China were headed off when the US alerted the Chinese, US plans for World War 3 relied on China joining the US (it’s actually mentioned in the WW3 movie Red Dawn), China had border wars with Soviet ally Vietnam with the quiet encouragement of the US, and China assisted the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the USSR along with the US.

  41. The USA isn’t a status quo power, it is nakedly Imperialist and has been marching East since the 1990s, revising borders along the way. We’ve moved from the Elbe and are presently fighting at the Dnipier. This is rich “ that effect makes large-scale revisionist aims quite hard to achieve. To be clear, the most obvious sort of revisionist aims are shifts in territorial boundaries.”

    Unless its FREE doing the revision. I’m American and a Vet, this is exactly what we’re doing since Bosnia.

    Perhaps a look at the map would help? Where is Russia?

    The Long Peace- which is ending- is nuclear weapons, not Homo Economus. Not money. Fear, Honor, Interest is war, it’s never been all that profitable. Speaking of profit the Atlanticists owe you a check. Spend it fast. This all ends when Biden Croaks.

    1. “Marching east” and more generally describing NATO expansion as a solely-US driven process seems to miss the fact that several countries tried very hard to get into NATO, including threatening to pursue nuclear weapons if not invited, and sending speakers to campaign for the opposition political party in the US as a threat regarding expansion. The US didn’t “conquer” the country (Poland) that did both of these things, they were invited, some might even say threatened, in.

      1. That’s *one* country, not “Eastern Europe” as a whole. And Poland, in particular, has suffered so much at the hands of Russia (going back at least to 1772, not just to 1945) that I don’t blame them for doing whatever it takes to be free of Russian domination. I don’t necessarily think the calculus holds for everywhere in the region though, some of them (if you go by public opinion polls) are more ambivalent about it.

        1. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are certainly in the “tried very hard to get into NATO” category, even if they didn’t threaten to develop nuclear weapons. It’s kind of fascinating how they got together to continuously and jointly badger the US and European NATO members into letting them in. (Estonia and Latvia, of course, had been under Russian dominion even longer than Poland and Lithuania.)

          1. I agree about the Baltics. The countries with more ambivalent views about Russia and the Western powers that I’m think of (suggested by public polling and to some extent by politics) are more Slovakia, Serbia and Bulgaria (and as mentioned, Hungary).

            There are probably good historical reasons behind each of those situations- in Slovakia and Hungary in particular there seems to be a lot of nostalgia for the communist era, Bulgaria and Serbia have longstanding historical ties to Russia, and of course Serbia/Yugoslavia was never under Soviet domination (and even apparently had a cooperation agreement with NATO in the late Stalin years).

  42. Good post! Nice to read something heartening about the world, though I’m not so sanguine about global warming.


    in [the] last three decades

    one it — once it

    One the one hand — On the one hand

    Every state as conflict — has

    ameniable – amenable

  43. This was a really exciting piece! And to be honest part of why I found it really exciting was the materialist grounding of it. I move in a lot of traditional left-wing spaces, and the aspect of these spaces that makes me roll my eyes the most is “I am doing materialist analysis” followed by an analysis so idealistic that it sounds like a pre-Macchiavelli pure morality argument. “The US foreign policy is doomed because people’s innate moral compass balks at cynical real politic” is…not a materialist argument at all. This argument that you’ve presented? Very materialist by contrast!

    I’m particularly moved by the repeated insight that while there are anti-coalition actors, they aren’t coordinating even when they’re served up total meatballs. When the US started putting sanctions on Russia, there was repeated predictions even by people I think are quite smart (Michael Hudson stood out to me) that the US had ruined itself by creating a situation where Russia and China will create a robust alliance that will rapidly draw African and other Asian nations into its orbit. As you note, nothing of this sort happened at all. No such alliance has arisen, no such challenge to the existing international financial order has been mounted, and if anything Russia has found itself more profoundly isolated than ever before. And that’s even accounting for the efforts many countries have put into skirt sanctions in order to profit off of the arbitrage of re-selling Russian oil. I didn’t think these predictions by ostensible Marxists to be very compelling or grounded in the first place, and then they turned out to be near perfectly wrong.

    Which is all to say that not only do I like this a lot, I think you beat most pop-Marxists very strongly at doing a Marxist-style analysis of the situation. However you slice up or cluster the classes of the world, the classes that have an interest in tipping over the apple cart are at this moment simply not numerous or powerful enough to put such plans in motion. No grand conspiracy, no false ideals, just cynical political interest. Is it fair to say that the international order has winners and losers? Absolutely. But every vision of violently collapsing that order (as opposed to gradual reforms) involves incredible economic, social, and yes physical harm to a good 90-99% of people.

    1. “I’m particularly moved by the repeated insight that while there are anti-coalition actors, they aren’t coordinating even when they’re served up total meatballs.”

      This is true (for the time being), but I think that has to do more with insanely bad policy choices by Russia’s leadership (and moderately poor leadership by China’s) than with any of this self-congratulatory stuff about the inherent superiority of liberal democratic capitalism.

      Most of the mid-size non-free countries (like Cuba or Vietnam) or semi-free countries (like the aforesaid Hungary and Turkey), after all, are not doing their best to throw their weight around and alienate potential allies. (Neither is Iran, for that matter). I think this is more a “big country” problem than a “non free” country problem.

  44. Can this whole argument be reduced to a simple: “as the world gets richer, people want to fight less and less”?

  45. To quote Yes Minister about Balance of Power: “Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians.”

  46. An excellent post, as everything I’ve read here: are we sure, however, that the status quo coalition wants and tries to make the rest of the world free and rich, though? (insert dependence theory, that one picture of US interventions abroad, the muyahadeen, pinochet, us support of franco, the contras, luis posadas and so on and so on).

    1. Well of course the examples you mention were all in the context of opposing Communism, which by US standards was manifestly un-rich and un-free. However hypocritical or inept US intervention was, it was intended to uphold prosperity and freedom.

      1. The conflicts in question weren’t between “communism” and “capitalism”, they were between two specific sides (the FSLN vs. the contras, the Afghan communists vs. the mujahideen, etc.) and in many of those cases I’d strongly disagree that the American backed side represented “prosperity” or “freedom” more than their rivals did.

        Hypocritical and inept doesn’t really capture it- US intervention in Nicaragua was just plain evil.

        1. I will note here that in most of those cases the communists were, in large part, preaching a heretical Marxism–“peasants of X, unite! You will own your own land, either as a village or individually!”

          Which is part of why US involvement in so many of those countries was purblind stupid. We could have forestalled communism in Central America and SE Asia by buying out the landed interests and redistributing the land to the people who worked it at a fraction of the cost of what we ended up paying in blood and treasure and credibility. At which point the locals would have made sure that anyone going around preaching state ownership of the land wouldn’t do so for very long.

          1. In one of Prof. Brad DeLong’s lectures he notes that an essential part of getting to a modern industrial economy is getting rid of the big landowners, functionally if not literally. And he notes that South Korea may have benefited from having it happen twice, once when the Japanese took over, and then again when they left.

          2. I think communism in most countries had to make big changes to Marxist doctrine in order to get mass support, including in ways that would have horrified Marx, yes. The more nuanced positions on land ownership, which you correctly point to, is a big one. Concessions on nationalism is another big one. In Czechoslovakia, the only Eastern European country where communists won a free election in the 1940s (sort of), they were enthusiastic supporters of Czechoslovak nationalism especially around the issue of the German population transfers. Klement Gottwald, in spite of his German surname, gloated over expelling the Germans and said something like “this is retribution for the Battle of the White Mountain” (over 300 years earlier). I can’t see Marx or Engels really being happy about embracing ethno-national identity in that way.

            In both Nicaragua and Afghanistan particularly, the communists were also smart enough to ditch the official atheism that was one of the most toxic aspects of Marxist thought, and to emphasize that they were very welcome towards left-leaning brands of Christianity and Islam specifically. Both had major problems with official religious hierarchy, but neither was actually atheist or antireligious or anything close to it. (The communists in Laos went even further and officially financed the Buddhist clergy).

            US policy during the Cold War would have much smarter if they’d been less about ideology and more about geopolitics, and more tolerant of countries like Yugoslavia that were communist but *not* Soviet-aligned.

          3. As a Finn, I would like to concur, and add a supporting anecdote: one of the causes of the Finnish Civil War was popularly understood by the contemporaries to be the crofter class supporting the Reds: the people renting small farms wanted their own land. After the war, a moderate liberal-Social Democrat alliance allowed the crofters to buy their farms from the owners at about one seventh of the going price (using a constitutional amendment for this). This was a large factor in allowing Finland to meet Soviet threat in the Winter War without meaningful internal opposition.

            After the Second World War, the issue of landless young veterans was solved by allowing every veteran to buy a farm at a very reduced price, while the dispossessed Karelians were allocated land in relation to their former holdings without cost. The operation was financed by a general one-time 10-percent property tax, with the proceeds of which the larger land owners losing their land were compensated. This required, quite naturally, a constitutional amendment, but the operation allowed the non-communist parties to pre-empt communist demands for land reform. By 1948, the non-communist parties were able to use the threat of agricultural collectivisation as a potent talking point. Everyone in the countryside was living on their own land, so collectivisation was not a welcome idea. (Even the communists were not campaigning for it, but everyone knew how Soviet agriculture was organised.)

        2. From the USA policy standpoint, the situation in Nicaragua was this: a revolutionary Marxist regime now controlled a country that shared land borders with the rest of Central America. Cuba had long been an irritant but it was an island, which limited its ability to base guerillas and traffic weapons and supplies to other Marxist movements. Nicaragua was alarming because of its potential to become the North Vietnam of Latin America- the unassailable base from which guerilla war and revolution was exported to the rest of the hemisphere.

          In 1979 the Soviet Union had never looked stronger; while post-Vietnam War, post-oil shocks, post-inflation, post-Iranian Revolution, the USA had never in decades seemed weaker. The USA was faced with the dilemma of how to contain Communism when anti-authoritarian movements seemed to inevitably become Marxist and guerilla war seemed to be an undefeatable strategy. The USA’s answer in the 1980s was to adopt supporting counter-revolutionary movements, to some success in Nicaragua and greater success in Afghanistan.

          I can’t say that to lovers of liberty the USA’s support for any regime willing to fight against communism wasn’t ugly. But in a realpolitik sense it was the least lousy course of action open to it.

          1. I mean, I’m not a “lover of liberty” personally, my criticism of US policy is coming from a very different point of view. I ‘m favourably disposed to the FSLN on the merits- I support what they and their allies were trying to achieve- so *of course* I’m not going to support the ultimate goals of the Reagan administration (or any realistically conceivable US administration) in trying to make Latin America safe for capitalism.

            That said, even if you accept the basic liberal-democratic capitalist premises (which I don’t), I still think the US policy during the 1980s was both morally and intellectually outrageous.

            From the FSLN’s point of view, they weren’t “exporting” revolution (and much less were the Cubans or the Soviets), they were extending fraternal support to people who had finally had enough of being oppressed by rural landlords and urban capitalists. They didn’t create the revolutionary movements in El Salvador, Guatemala, etc., those arose independently and autochthonously. Considering that any aid that Cuba, the Soviets or Nicaragua extended to the Latin American left was *dwarfed* by US aid to the right wing forces, I think it’s wholly hypocritical to complain about Nicaragua exporting revolution.

            It’s also hypocritical to impose economic sanctions on a country and then point to their failure at becoming rich. Even with the US sanctions, Cuba had mediocre / middling economic performance by Latin American standards, but not *terrible*. Last I checked it was comparable to Mexico, and between 1970 (when they ended the Guevara-inspired, far-left policies of “moral incentives” and moved to more “orthodox” economic positions) and 1990 (when their Soviet ally and trade partner folded), it was pretty good. In a world where the US was trading freely with Cuba and a socialist Nicaragua, I’m sure they would not be “free” in the US sense, but they would probably be quite a bit richer than they are today.

          2. All true as far as it goes, but here’s the thing: yes, a country in which a mass of impoverished tenant farmers and pauper laborers are oppressed by rural landlords and urban capitalists is a bad thing. I doubt anyone in even the most conservative right-wing faction of US policy makers actually liked that, or saw it as the way the world ought to be, or that it was the natural condition of the poor of the Third World. Okay, given that that’s not a desirable state of affairs, how does one propose that it will ever change? How can the oppressed poor become wealthy and free?

            The capitalist liberal democracy answer is development: yes things currently suck for the laboring poor; but they sucked for the laboring poor of Britain, the USA, Germany, and every other now rich country during their developmental period. Increasing development will bring not only prosperity but the social and political values that will lead to freedom and respect for rights. It’s long hard work, but we climbed the mountain and you can too. When everyone’s made it to the top, it will be “the end of history”.

            The Marxist answer (and more broadly the populist answer) is that the game is rigged, therefore the only way to win is to refuse to play. Bourgeoise revolutions like the American and French Revolutions are a thing of the past since now the industrialists’ interest is to cooperate with authoritarian rulers in suppressing the poor. This is a remarkably plausible theory when one sees for example the landowner, who lives in a mansion, literally giving his good friend the colonel a call (and a generous donation), who then sends in a company of soldiers to kill those troublemaking union organizers. The laboring poor must smash the system of oppression, quite possibly by killing the oppressing class and seizing the wealth that they’ve selfishly hoarded for themselves. Then the world can evolve towards a post-capitalist “end of history”.

            The question then becomes which of these two alternate hypotheses is at least somewhat more correct than the other. And if the USA subscribes to the former because that was its lived historical experience, the sub-question becomes which route do US policy makers think is more likely to eventually lead to a state of prosperity and freedom? They’re more likely to think that reform from an authoritarian system will eventually happen, whereas it’s hard to see how it could ever happen to a Marxist system except by a counter-revolution. Indeed the fear by many liberals in the West was that Marxist totalitarianism worked in a horrible Orwellian way: it would never be free, and probably of at most lackluster prosperity, but it was true to itself and so without external pressure could perpetuate itself indefinitely.

            It might have been fair to accuse the USA and the rest of the West of simple reactionary opposition back when Marxist revolutions were a work in progress and still trying to figure out how exactly to develop prosperity- even if in the meantime the process of omelet making accumulated a great many egg shells. But the Marxist track record has not been good. A variety of hare-brained schemes (e.g. Lysenkoist agriculture, the Great Leap Forward) that supposedly would take advantage of a top-down planned economy approach were dismal failures. Meanwhile development and reform, though literally taking generations, has happened in such countries as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and others.

            So it’s no great surprise that the USA would extend its policy of containment to Nicaragua. The only alternative would have been a policy of engagement, attempting to trade freely with Nicaragua and Cuba- and the debate there is whether such engagement would encourage moderation or simply subsidize “socialist” movements which had a history of turning hard-line Marxist. The track record of engagement has not been good either; in China it seems to have resulted in turning a formerly Marxist country into one said to now meet the textbook definition of fascism. If the FSLN has moderated its policies it’s been due to external circumstances: US opposition and the loss of its Soviet patron.

    2. Others have commented on how these US interventions happened in a different context from the current Status Quo coalition. The interventions since the 90s fit closer with the “free and rich”-goal, even though their successes were…. let’s say mixed.

      But for dependence theory: Even if Dependence Theory is true (that is, the current economy depends on the existence of poor and rich countries and all countries becoming developed is impossible), it doesn’t mean the US elite believes Dependence Theory to be true. They may just be ideologically blinded. Their attempts at making everyone free and rich would be honest, but doomed to failure.

      1. Donald Trump just proposed banning “communists” from entering the United States, and Ronald De Santis just passed a law requiring Florida high schools to teach about the superiority of capitalism, so I’m not at all convinced that America has outgrown Cold War thinking.

  47. This is an interesting framework for thinking about international relations at the global level (as opposed to a series of bilateral events). It may be too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see how the current trend in the Middle East toward closer relations with China, Iran and Russia affects the international order. There seems to be a demand among many countries (including Turkey and Hungary) to be rich but not free, and the promise of BRICS is that you can become rich without having your internal affairs subject to coercion by sanctions from the US or EU. While this does not threaten increased wars, it does tend to weaken international institutions and provides incentive to limit the power of the US and status quo coalition.

    1. “There seems to be a demand among many countries (including Turkey and Hungary) to be rich but not free”

      It might be more accurate to say that there is a demand among many rulers to stay ruling at whatever cost to anyone else’s freedom. That’s not quite the same thing as the ruled wanting to be “rich but not free”.

      1. Still, these rulers wouldn’t be effective if there wasn’t a section of the population who saw them as on their side and supported restrictions on the rulers opponents.

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